Introduction to DevOps: 10 Guidelines for Implementing DevOps

In this last article in the series, Robert Sheldon discusses ten guidelines that will help organisations implement DevOps successfully.

The series so far:

  1. Introduction to DevOps: The Evolving World of Application Delivery
  2. Introduction to DevOps: The Application Delivery Pipeline
  3. Introduction to DevOps: DevOps and the Database
  4. Introduction to DevOps: Security, Privacy, and Compliance
  5. Introduction to DevOps: Database Delivery
  6. Introduction to DevOps: 10 Guidelines for Implementing DevOps

Throughout this series, I’ve touched upon various aspects of the DevOps application delivery model, covering such topics as the delivery pipeline, security as an integrated process, and the importance of incorporating database deployments into application delivery. This article ties up the series by providing ten important guidelines for implementing DevOps in your data center. Although each DevOps environment is unique to an organization—addressing its specific needs and circumstances—these guidelines can offer a starting point for planning and implementing your DevOps strategy, discussing many of the considerations to take into account along the way.

1. Build an effective DevOps culture.

You might be tempted to view this first guideline as nothing more than introductory fluff to round out the article, and certainly many teams implement DevOps before fully appreciating the value of an effective culture. Failure to establish and encourage the right culture will inevitably translate to an excruciating and inefficient DevOps process or, worse still, a complete operations meltdown.

Implementing DevOps in any organization requires a shift in thinking, a new mindset that values communication and collaboration over inflexible roles and siloed teams that can’t see beyond their own borders. Those who participate in the DevOps process must be willing to work together and recognize that they’re accountable for application delivery from beginning to end and that they have a stake in the outcome.

To establish such a culture, you need a firm commitment from management and other leadership that clearly demonstrates a willingness to dedicate the time and resources necessary to establish and encourage transparent communications, information sharing, cross-team collaboration, and a general attitude that application delivery is everyone’s responsibility.

2. Take baby steps when getting started.

DevOps is not an all-or-nothing proposition. You do not need to revamp your entire operation overnight. Forget about the massive implementation scheme and instead take small steps toward achieving your goals. A DevOps implementation requires thorough planning and careful rollout while taking into account business needs that can evolve over time. For this, you need plenty of leeway.

You should be thinking long-term toward full implementation and not try to accomplish everything in a couple of months, especially for a large-scale operation. Rushing a DevOps implementation can be as big a mistake as failing to establish the right culture. You need time to assess requirements, train participants, choose the right tools, and deploy the infrastructure. Trying to implement DevOps before you’re prepared can result in buggy applications, compromised data, and a lot of wasted time and money.

When planning your DevOps implementation, it’s better to start small than risk the entire operation. For example, you don’t need to automate every task at once or move all your applications to DevOps at the same time. You can start by automating one or two processes or by developing smaller, less critical apps. After you’ve succeeded with one phase, you can then move on to the next.

3. Plan and document your development projects.

For any DevOps project, your development process should start with a thorough planning phase to ensure that development efforts run efficiently, remain on schedule, and come in under budget. All teams involved with application delivery—including development, testing, and operations—should participate in the planning process.

As part of this process, you should set realistic milestones, taking into account the time necessary to implement new tools and infrastructure and to allow those who are new to DevOps to adjust to a different way of working. Development efforts should focus on small, incremental changes, with more frequent release cycles. This approach can lead to releases that are more reliable and predictable while helping to avoid issues that can complicate and disrupt the application delivery process.

In addition, DevOps teams should document all necessary information throughout the planning and application delivery processes. Proper documentation is crucial to establishing a culture of collaboration and communication. It helps team members understand the systems, what has changed, what caused specific issues, and how to resolve those issues. Detailed documentation can also help improve subsequent release cycles for the current project and better streamline operations for future projects.

4. Take a security-first approach to DevOps.

Security, compliance, and privacy should be factored into your DevOps processes from the beginning and continue through all phases of application delivery, whether planning your applications, setting up infrastructure, writing code, or deploying to production. Security should not be treated as an afterthought, or a segregated phase squeezed into the application delivery process right before deployment, or worse still after the application goes live. Security must be integrated into all phases, implemented continuously, and treated as a priority by all team members.

As with application development, automated testing can be integral to ensuring that data remains secure and protected, with checks performed during each release cycle. If a test exposes a potential issue, it can be tagged for a security review, and the issue addressed quickly by developers before that application has an opportunity to find its way into production. In addition, peer code reviews should look for potential security and compliance issues, along with application-specific concerns.

DevOps teams should also take the steps necessary to secure the DevOps environment and processes themselves, such as storing all code in a secure source control repository, isolating the DevOps systems in a secure network, verifying all third-party code, or adhering to the principles of least privilege. There are, in fact, several best practices an organization should follow to implement continuous DevOps security, and teams must commit to ensuring those practices are always being followed.

5. Implement a code management strategy.

All DevOps teams should be using a source control solution that versions and protects files. The solution should provide a single source of truth for all files and ensure that they have a record of who changed what while providing easy access to any specific version of the application. But version control alone is not enough. You must also ensure that you check in all relevant files—not only application code, but also configuration and change scripts, test scripts, database deployment scripts, reference data, and any other files relevant to application delivery.

A code management strategy should also address how to handle branching, which lets developers work on different features simultaneously, without stepping all over each other. You’ll have to determine the best approach to branching based on your organization’s requirements. Just be sure that the source control solution you choose contains branching tools that are robust and sophisticated enough to ensure that branching works in your favor, rather than complicating operations.

You should also take into account other considerations when planning your code management strategy. For example, you might want to implement a policy that requires developers to check in their code at least once a day, or more often if necessary. Infrequent check-ins can complicate operations unnecessarily and slow down the development effort. Also, be sure that source code and other critical files are not being managed directly on local workstations or network shares. Again, everything should be in source control.

6. Automate, automate, automate.

For DevOps to be effective, you must automate as many operations as possible and practical. The more operations that can be automated—especially the mundane, time-consuming, repetitive ones—the more efficient the overall process and the fewer the risks. Where possible, avoid manual one-off tasks in favor of repeatable operations that can be automated (keeping in mind the second guideline about taking baby steps).

You won’t be able to eliminate all manual processes, but try to make them the exception, rather than the rule. Manual processes can slow development efforts or bring them to a halt, such as when a developer stops working on code to set up a virtual machine or implement a database environment.

Most standardized DevOps operations can now be automated, helping to improve efficiency and speed up application delivery. An automated operation can be used multiple times by multiple team members in multiple circumstances. In addition, the operation can be altered and improved to address changing business requirements. Test automation is a good example of this. You can write unit tests that kick off automatically when updated code is checked into source control. The tests can run as often as necessary, and they can be updated as needed to accommodate new requirements.

7. Think continuous everything.

In the world of DevOps, application delivery is not a one-time operation but rather an ongoing process that makes it possible to continuously update and improve the application until it reaches the end of its lifecycle. As with automation, continuous practices must be ongoing and deeply integrated into the DevOps environment. DevOps is not so much a linear process as it is a continuous flow of consecutive iterations that last until the application is no longer being actively developed or maintained.

Discussions about the continuous nature of DevOps often focus on continuous integration, delivery, and deployment because of the pivotal roles they play in defining the DevOps pipeline. Continuous integration, for example, makes it possible for developers to check in frequent code changes and know that those changes are automatically verified so they can be immediately incorporated into the codebase.

But continuous integration does not operate in a vacuum. It goes hand-in-hand with continuous testing, which validates the code by running automated tests that have been predefined to look for specific issues, making it possible to identify problems early in the development process, when they’re much easier to address. Also important to continuous integration—and the DevOps environment in general—are continuous security, monitoring, and feedback, which ensure that projects stay on track, DevOps processes work efficiently, and sensitive data is not put at risk.

8. Make quality assurance a priority.

One of the foundations of effective QA is automated, continuous testing that’s integrated into the DevOps pipeline. The software should be tested at each phase of the application development process, with development and testing done in tandem, beginning with the first code check-in. In addition, the testing strategy should incorporate the environment in which the application will be running, such as verifying that the correct software versions are installed or that environmental variables are properly configured.

Other factors critical to effective QA are continuous monitoring and feedback. You must be able to track the application’s health in order to identify any issues with the application or the environment in which it runs, even as the application scales. You should also be tracking the DevOps infrastructure itself in order to optimize application delivery and alert the team to any issues in the delivery process.

DevOps teams should consider using key performance indicators (KPIs) that measure such metrics as failure rates, time to resolution, completed operations, incomplete tasks, milestones accomplished, or any other factors that can help the team understand and improve operations and the application. Teams might also consider automatic dashboards that provide real-time insights into the environment and development efforts. When planning your DevOps infrastructure and projects, be sure you include QA experts to ensure that no aspect of QA is being overlooked.

9. Manage your environments.

Application planning must take into account the environments in which the application will be developed, tested, staged, and deployed to production. For example, you’ll likely need separate environments for developing an application so developers can work on different parts of the application without conflicting with each other. The same goes for testing. Different environments are usually needed to ensure the accuracy of the testing processes. Then there are the environments needed for staging and deploying the application, which can vary depending on the deployment model.

To address environmental requirements, many DevOps teams are now implementing infrastructure as code (IaC), a process of automating infrastructure creation. To incorporate IaC into your DevOps processes, you start by writing scripts that define the infrastructure necessary to support your application. For example, a script might provision a virtual machine, configure its operating system, install a database management system, apply security updates, and carry out several other operations.

With IaC, the application code and configuration scripts are linked together, rather than the application being tied to a single machine or cluster. The configuration scripts run automatically whenever the application is deployed. IaC ensures that the application environment is always the same, no matter where that environment runs while eliminating the need to set up environments manually. IaC also allows you to create as many temporary environments as necessary to support the application development process while ensuring that everyone is working in the same environment.

10. Choose the right tools and technologies.

To implement a successful DevOps environment, you need tools that increase efficiency and simplify tasks. But keep in mind the second guideline about taking baby steps. You don’t need every DevOps tool out there, and you don’t need to implement every chosen tool at once. Select your tools carefully, looking for those that integrate easily with other systems, facilitate automation, foster communication and collaboration, and provide visibility into your DevOps environment and processes.

A DevOps environment can require a wide range of tools. A source control solution is, of course, a given, but you’ll also need tools for automating infrastructure, monitoring systems and applications, integrating security, tracking tasks and development cycles, managing database releases, and carrying out several other processes. Fortunately, many vendors now offer solutions that support DevOps application delivery, but they differ, so you’ll need to evaluate them carefully.

As part of this process, you should take into account the architectures and technologies you’ll be employing. I’ve already pointed to IaC as an essential strategy, but there are other technologies that can also be effective in supporting DevOps, such as containers or microservices, all of which require their own set of tools. In addition, you should evaluate the extent to which you might be using cloud technologies to augment or host your DevOps operations and how to integrate systems between platforms.

Tailor-made DevOps

There are, of course, other considerations than what I’ve discussed here, and those that I have discussed could easily justify articles of their own. Even so, what I’ve covered should help you get started in planning your DevOps strategy and provide an overview of some of the factors to take into account as part of that process.

Keep in mind, however, that each DevOps implementation is unique and should be tailored to your organization’s specific needs and circumstances. Although DevOps has proven a valuable strategy for many organizations, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to implementing DevOps, and even if there were, there would be no guarantee that each implementation would work exactly the same in all circumstances. A DevOps environment should be designed to fit your organization’s requirements and improve application delivery, not make the process more difficult for everyone involved.