DevOps: Better Than the Sum of Its Parts

Most of us longtime system administrators get a little nervous when people start talking about DevOps. It's an IT topic surrounded by a lot of mystery and confusion, much like the term "Cloud Computing" was a few years back. Thankfully, DevOps isn't something sysadmins need to fear. It's not software that allows developers to do the job of the traditional system administrator, but rather it's just a concept making both development and system administration better. Tools like Chef and Puppet (and Salt Stack, Ansible, New Relic and so on) aren't "DevOps", they're just tools that allow IT professionals to adopt a DevOps mindset. Let's start there.

What Is DevOps?

Ask ten people to define DevOps, and you'll likely get 11 different answers. (Those numbers work in binary too, although I suggest a larger sample size.) The problem is that many folks confuse DevOps with DevOps tools. These days, when people ask me, "What is DevOps?", I generally respond: "DevOps isn't a thing, it's a way of doing a thing."

The worlds of system administration and development historically have been very separate. As a sysadmin, I tend to think very differently about computing from how a developer does. For me, things like scalability and redundancy are critical, and my success often is gauged by uptime. If things are running, I'm successful. Developers have a different way of approaching their jobs, and need to consider things like efficiency, stability, security and features. Their success often is measured by usability.

Hopefully, you're thinking the traits I listed are important for both development and system administration. In fact, it's that mindset from which DevOps was born. If we took the best practices from the world of development, and infused them into the processes of operations, it would make system administration more efficient, more reliable and ultimately better. The same is true for developers. If they can begin to "code" their own hardware as part of the development process, they can produce and deploy code more quickly and more efficiently. It's basically the Reese's Peanut Butter Cup of IT. Combining the strengths of both departments creates a result that is better than the sum of its parts.

Once you understand what DevOps really is, it's easy to see how people confuse the tools (Chef, Puppet, New Relic and so on) for DevOps itself. Those tools make it so easy for people to adopt the DevOps mindset, that they become almost synonymous with the concept itself. But don't be seduced by the toys—an organization can shift to a very successful DevOps way of doing things simply by focusing on communication and cross-discipline learning. The tools make it easier, but just like owning a rake doesn't make someone a farmer, wedging DevOps tools into your organization doesn't create a DevOps team for you. That said, just like any farmer appreciates a good rake, any DevOps team will benefit from using the plethora of tools in the DevOps world.

The System Administrator's New Rake

In this article, I want to talk about using DevOps tools as a system administrator. If you're a sysadmin who isn't using a configuration management tool to keep track of your servers, I urge you to check one out. I'm going to talk about Chef, because for my day job, I recently taught a course on how to use it. Since you're basically learning the concepts behind DevOps tools, it doesn't matter that you're focusing on Chef. Kyle Rankin is a big fan of Puppet, and conceptually, it's just another type of rake. If you have a favorite application that isn't Chef, awesome.

If I'm completely honest, I have to admit I was hesitant to learn Chef, because it sounded scary and didn't seem to do anything I wasn't already doing with Bash scripts and cron jobs. Plus, Chef uses the Ruby programming language for its configuration files, and my programming skills peaked with:

10 PRINT "Hello!"
20 GOTO 10

Nevertheless, I had to learn about it so I could teach the class. I can tell you with confidence, it was worth it. Chef requires basically zero programming knowledge. In fact, if no one mentioned that its configuration files were Ruby, I'd just have assumed the syntax for the conf files was specific and unique. Weird config files are nothing new, and honestly, Chef's config files are easy to figure out.


Shawn Powers is a Linux Journal Associate Editor. You might find him on IRC, Twitter, or training IT pros at CBT Nuggets.