Four things you should know about DevOps

By Charlene Chin

GI explains how it can help governments.

There are many buzz phrases in tech, but a key new one is ‘DevOps’ - an ugly term with an elegant mission.

Put simply: it’s a method of changing an organisation’s structure to allow quick development - and this can apply to everything from coding, supply chain management and even policy making.

Advocates include Amazon, Netflix, and Target, as well as startups and some govtech agencies. To help you understand what this trend is about, GovInsider has set out the four things public officials should know.

1. What is it?

DevOps refers to a move to bring developers and operations teams together to work on projects. Commonly, these functions are separate; they can be placed under different management structures, based in different locations, or one may even be outsourced.

For example, the coding of a new site may be outsourced, while the team that maintains it will be in-house. This leads to long processes during the build, confused communications and - ultimately - slow delivery.

To solve this, DevOps brings together the development and the operations teams to work on a project. For example, they may be working on an e-commerce site, with regular sessions to improve the performance of key functions and to ensure the backend system can cope with these changes.

“The entire technical team works together for the whole of the product lifecycle - from the planning stage all the way to the deployment of the solution”, explains Andus Lim, Senior Research Engineer at Singapore Management University.

The term DevOps was first used by Andrew Clay Shafer and Patrick Debois at the Agile 2008 conference. Shafer ran a session at the conference, which only Debois attended, and together they vented their frustrations about the organisation of tech teams.

2. Why is it important?

If coding and delivery teams can’t work effectively together, the standard of services can be affected. This is particularly true in government, where operations are managing legacy IT systems that need to be factored into the development of new services.

Developers need support from operations in order to build reliable, compatible software. It also saves on time and speeds up decision-making. “A traditional software company would take weeks to actually deploy their solution”, Lim says, but “DevOps allows them to do more continuous integration and deployment”.

Using DevOps enables teams to use ‘agile project management’ - where they continuously improve a project using trial and error.

These two buzz phrases are sometimes confused, but agile is the project management process, while DevOps relates to who is in the team.

3. How are companies using this?

After outsourcing its tech for years, Target used DevOps to successfully restructure its IT and build e-commerce platforms. The company placed its engineers and product deployment staff to work closely with one another, where they all had shared ownership in building software services.

Senior executives also attended DevOps workshops, where they were exposed to coding. “The purpose wasn’t for them to learn how to code but for them to build empathy and understanding for how their engineers are supposed to work in this model,” Ross Clanton, senior group manager at Target told the Wall Street Journal.

In Singapore, local startups have also been quick to adopt the DevOps approach. Searix - a Singaporean business technology agency - uses DevOps to ensure “better progress reports for our clients and, as a result, earlier market testing opportunities available for them”, says Lance Ng, founder of the company.

4. How can DevOps help government?

Some governments are using this in IT, while others have adopted a similar approach to their policy making. The UK’s Government Digital Service organises its teams using DevOps.

GDS developers have a lot of autonomy and are allowed to deploy code directly to production servers from their laptops - rather than going through a separate operations team.

This allows them to respond quickly to developing events. For instance, GDS developers fixed the Heartbleed bug - a serious security vulnerability that affected millions of servers worldwide - on its machines in a couple of hours after its announcement.

The United States’ Defense Digital Service, meanwhile, is also using the approach to scale its GPS system, working alongside defence contractors to automate, test, integrate and deploy solutions. And Singapore’s Government Digital Services has been openly discussing the value of this approach.

But the approach can be used outside of tech. For example, Malaysia’s Prime Minister’s Delivery Unit (PEMANDU) runs ‘labs’ which pull in operations professionals like police officers alongside policy ‘coders’ - the criminologists - so that all aspects of a team quickly run through how to achieve a target objective.

It’s an ugly, ugly word, but it can build beautiful things - from brilliant websites, to nimbler policies. And as with the best ideas, it just makes sense. Who’s in favour of silos?