Web Admin Blog Real Web Admins. Real World Experience.

15Mar/100

P.S. We’re Hiring

Web Operations Engineer

If you're from the Austin area you probably know National Instruments - our campus is up here at Mopac and Braker; we've been named one of Fortune Magazine's 100 Best Companies To Work For eleven years running.

We've got an opening on a new team building cloud-based Web systems for new SaaS products and Web integration features of our existing hardware and software products.

We need someone to form the core of a new international Web Operations team to provide 24x7 support of these products. You'll work interactively with our R&D engineers, Web programmers, systems engineers, product support organization, and a host of other groups to this end.  You'll also help build up the operational environment - monitoring, provisioning, release process, high availability, reporting, performance assurance, security auditing, that kind of thing.  You’ll need to be able to document well and train other operations staff.

You can read the "straight" job posting and apply at ni.com/jobs under R&D as "Web Systems Engineer."

Benefits:

  • Work with smart people
  • Fun, fast-paced environment
  • We'll pay you in real money, not WoW gold
  • We're growing and profitable ::cough no layoffs cough::
  • Room to innovate

You should be skilled in administration of Linux and Windows systems (we run about 50/50), Java and .NET app servers, Web services, search, security, performance, high availability, infrastructure automation, and all the other fun things that Web systems people do.

This is a Web systems administration position with responsibility for realtime operations - it's not Web design, Web applications programming, help desk/end user support, or "back room" systems admin. If you don't want to spend your day configuring load balancing software, figuring out why someone's app is crashing the app server, finding security holes in a Web application, debugging why a new Web page is really slow, getting pages from server monitors, and coding up a great new tool to automate your team's work, this isn't the position for you.  There is oncall “pager duty” and some nights/weekends required.

Sorry, no recruiters or H1-B candidates.

12Mar/104

Before DevOps, Don’t You Need OpsOps?

From the "sad but true" files comes an extremely insightful point apparently discussed over beer by the UK devops crew recently - that we are talking about dev and ops collaboration but the current state of collaboration among ops teams is pretty crappy.

This resonates deeply with me.  I've seen that problem in spades.  I think in general that a lot of the discussion about the agile ops space is too simplistic in that it seems tuned to organizations of "five guys, three of whom are coders and two of whom are operations" and there's no differentiation.  In real life, there's often larger orgs and a lot of differentiation that causes various collaboration challenges.  Some people refer to this as Web vs Enterprise, but I don't think that's strictly true; once your Web shop grows from 5 guys to 200 it runs afoul of this too - it's a simple scalability and organizational engineering problem.

As an aside, I don't even like the "Ops" term - a sysadmin team can split into subgroups that do systems engineering, release management, and operational support...  Just saying "Ops" seems to me to create implications of not being a partner in the initial design and development of the overall system/app/service/site/whatever you want to call it.

Ops Verticals

Here, we have a large Infrastructure department.  Originally, it was completely siloed by technology verticals, and there's a lot of subgroups.  Network, UNIX, Windows, DBA, Lotus Notes, Telecom, Storage, Data Center...  Some ten plus years ago when the company launched their Web site in earnest, they quickly realized that wasn't going to work out.  You had the buck-passing behavior described in the blog posts above that made issues impossible to solve in a timely fashion, plus it made collaboration with devs/business nearly impossible.  Not only did you need like 8 admins to come involve themselves in your project, but they did not speak similar enough languages - you'd have some crusty UNIX admin yelling "WHAT ABOUT THE INODES" until the business analyst started to cry.

Dev Silos

But are our developers here better off?  They are siloed by business unit.  Just among the Web developers there's the eCommerce developers, eCRM, Product Advisors, Community, Support, Content Management...  On the one hand, they are able to be very agile in creating solutions inside their specific niche.  On the other hand, they are all working within the same system environment, and they don't always stay on the same page in terms of what technologies they are using. "Well, I'm sure THAT team bought a lovely million dollar CMS, but we're going to buy our own different million dollar CMS.   No, you don't get more admin resource."  Over time, they tried to produce architecture groups and other cross-team initiatives to try to rein in the craziness, with mixed but overall positive results.

Plugging the Dike

What we did was create a Web Administration group (Web Ops, whatever you want to call it) that was holistically responsible for Web site uptime, performance, and security.  Running that team was my previous gig, did it for five years.  That group was more horizontally focused and would serve as an interface to the various technology verticals; it worked closely with developers in system design during development, coordinated the release process, and involved devs in troubleshooting during the production phase.

BizOps?

In fact, we didn't just partner with the developers - we partnered with the business owners of our Web site too, instead of tolerating the old model of "Business collaborates with the developers, who then come and tell ops what to do."  This was a remarkably easy sell really.  The company lost money every minute the Web site was down, and it was clear that the dev silos weren't going to be able to fix that any more than the ops silos were.  So we quickly got a seat at the same table.

Results

This was a huge success.  To this day, our director of Web Marketing is one of the biggest advocates of the Web operations team.  Since then, other application administration (our word for this cross-disciplinary ops) teams have formed along the same model.  The DevOps collaboration has been good overall - with certain stresses coming from the Web Ops team's role as gatekeeper and process enforcement.  Ironically, the biggest issues and worst relationships were within Infrastructure between the ops teams!

OpsOps - The Fly In The Ointment

The ops team silos haven't gone down quietly.  To this day the head DBA still says "I don't see a good reason for you guys [WebOps] to exist."  I think there's a common "a thing is just the sum of its parts" mindset among admins for whatever reason.  There are also turf wars arising from the technology silo division and the blurring of technology lines by modern tech.  I tried again and again to pitch "collaborative system administration."  But the default sysadmin behavior is to say "these systems are mine and I have root on them.  Those are your systems and you have root on them.  Stay on your side of the line and I'll stay on mine."

Fun specific Catch-22 situations we found ourselves in:

  • Buying a monitoring tool that correlates events across all the different tiers to help root-cause production problems - but the DBAs refusing to allow it on "their" databases.
  • Buying a hardware load balancer - we were going to manage it, not the network team, and it wasn't a UNIX or Windows server, so we couldn't get anyone to rack and jack it (and of course we weren't allowed to because "Why would a webops person need server room access, that's what the other teams are for").

Some of the problem is just attitude, pure and simple.  We had problems even with collaboration inside the various ops teams!  We'd work with one DBA to design a system and then later need to get support from another DBA, who would gripe that "no one told/consulted them!"  Part of the value of the agile principles that "DevOps" tries to distill is just a generic "get it into your damn head you need to be communicating and working together and that needs to be your default mode of operation." I think it's great to harp on that message because it's little understood among ops.  For every dev group that deliberately ostracizes their ops team, there's two ops teams who don't think they need to talk to the devs - in the end, it's mostly our fault.

Part of the problem is organizational.  I also believe (and ITIL, I think, agrees with me) that the technology-silo model has outlived its usefulness.  I'd like to see admin teams organized by service area with integral DBAs, OS admins, etc.  But people are scared of this for a couple reasons.  One is that those admins might do things differently from area to area (the same problem we have with our devs) - this could be mitigated by "same tech" cross-org standards/discussions.  The other is that this model is not the cheapest.  You can squeeze every last penny out if you only have 4 Windows admins and they're shared by 8 functional areas.  Of course, you are cutting off your nose to spite your face because you lose lots more in abandoned agility, but frankly corporate finance rules (minimize G&A spending) are a powerful driver here.

If nothing else, there's not "one right organization" - I'd be tempted to reorg everyone from verticals into horizontals, let that run for 5 years, and then reorg back the other way, just to keep the stratification from setting in.

Specialist vs Generalist

One other issue.  The Web Ops team we created required us to hire generalists - but generalists that knew their stuff in a lot of different areas.  It became very hard to hire for that position and training took months before someone was at all effective.  Being a generalist doesn't scale well.  Specialization is inevitable and, indeed, desirable (as I think pretty much anything in the history of anything demonstrates).  You can mitigate that with some cross-training and having people be generalists in some areas, but in the end, once you get past that "three devs, two ops, that's the company" model, specialization is needed.

That's why I think one of the common definitions of DevOps - all ops folks learning to be developers or vice versa - is fundamentally flawed.  It's not sustainable.  You either need to hire all expensive superstars that can be good at both, or you hire people that suck at both.

What you do is have people with varying mixes.  In my current team we have a continuum of pure ops people, ops folks doing light dev, devs doing light ops, and pure devs.  It's good to have some folks who are generalizing and some who are specializing.  It's not specializing that is bad, it's specialists who don't collaborate that are bad.

Conclusion

So I've shared a lot of experiences and opinions above but I'm not sure I have a brilliant solution to the problem.  I do think we need to recognize that Ops/Ops collaboration is an issue that arises with scale and one potentially even harder to overcome than Dev/Ops collaboration.  I do think stressing collaboration as a value and trying to break down organizational silos may help.  I'd be happy to hear other folks' experiences and thoughts!

11Mar/101

Defining Agile Operations and DevOps

I recently read a great blog post by Scott Wilson that was talking about the definitions of Agile Operations, DevOps, and related terms.  (Read the comments too, there's some good discussion.)  From what I've heard so far, there are a bunch of semi-related terms people are using around this whole "new thing of ours."

The first is DevOps, which has two totally different frequently used definitions.

1.  Developers and Ops working closely together - the "hugs and collaboration" definition

2.  Operations folks uptaking development best practices and writing code for system automation

The second is Agile Operations, which also has different meanings.

1.  Same as DevOps, whichever definition of that I'm using

2.  Using agile principles to run operations - process techniques, like iterative development or even kanban/TPS kinds of process stuff.  Often with a goal of "faster!"

3.  Using automation - version control, automatic provisioning/control/monitoring.  Sometimes called "Infrastructure Automation" or similar.

This leads to some confusion, as most of these specific elements can be implemented in isolation.  For example, I think the discussion at OpsCamp about "Is DevOps an antipattern" was predicated on an assumption that DevOps meant only DevOps definition #2, "ops guys trying to be developers," and made the discussion somewhat odd to people with other assumed definitions.

I have a proposed set of definitions.  To explain it, let's look at Agile Development and see how it's defined.

Agile development, according to wikipedia and the agile manifesto, consists of a couple different "levels" of thing.  To sum up the wikipedia breakdown,

  • Agile Principles - like "business/users and developers working together."  These are the core values that inform agile, like collaboration, people over process, software over documentation, and responding to change over planning.
  • Agile Methods - specific process types.  Iterations, Lean, XP, Scrum.  "As opposed to waterfall."
  • Agile Practices - techniques often found in conjunction with agile development, not linked to a given method flavor, like test driven development, continuous integration, etc.

I believe the different parts of Agile Operations that people are talking about map directly to these three levels.

  • Agile Operations Principles includes things like dev/ops collaboration (DevOps definition 1 above); things like James Turnbull's 4-part model seem to be spot on examples of trying to define this arena.
  • Agile Operations Methods includes process you use to conduct operations - iterations, kanban, stuff you'd read in Visible Ops; Agile Operations definition #2 above.
  • Agile Operations Practices includes specific techniques like automated build/provisioning, monitoring, anything you'd have a "toolchain" for.  This contains DevOps definition #2 and Agile Operations definition #3 above.

I think it's helpful to break them up along the same lines as agile development, however, because in the end some of those levels should merge once developers understand ops is part of system development too...  There shouldn't be a separate "user/dev collaboration" and "dev/ops collaboration," in a properly mature model it should become a "user/dev/ops collaboration," for example.

I think the dev2ops guys' "People over Process over Tools" diagram mirrors this about exactly - the people being one of the important agile principles, process being a large part of the methods, and tools being used to empower the practices.

What I like about that diagram, and why I want to bring this all back to the Agile Manifesto discussion, is that the risk of having various sub-definitions increases the risk that people will implement the processes or tools without the principles in mind, which is definitely an antipattern.  The Agile guys would tell you that iterations without collaboration is likely to not work out real well.

And it happens in agile development too - there are some teams here at my company that have adopted the methods and/or tools of agile but not its principles, and the results are suboptimal.

Therefore I propose that "Agile Operations" is an umbrella term for all these things, and we keep in mind the principles/methods/practices differentiation.

If we want to call the principles "devops" for short and some of the practices "infrastructure automation" for short I think that would be fine...   Although dev/ops collaboration is ONE of the important principles - but probably not the entirety; and infrastructure automation is one of the important practices, but there are probably others.

17Feb/100

Agile Operations

It's funny.  When we recently started working on an upgrade of our Intranet social media platform, and we were trying to figure out how to meld the infrastructure-change-heavy operation with the need for devs, designers, and testers to be able to start working on the system before "three months from now," we broached the idea of "maybe we should do that in iterations!"  First, get the new wiki up and working.  Then, worry about tuning, switching the back end database, etc.  Very basic, but it got me thinking about the problem in terms of "hey, Infrastructure still operates in terms of waterfall, don't we."

Then when Peco and I moved over to NI R&D and started working on cloud-based systems, we quickly realized the need for our infrastructure to be completely programmable - that is, not manually tweaked and controlled, but run in a completely automated fashion.  Also, since we were two systems guys embedded in a large development org that's using agile, we were heavily pressured to work in iterations along with them.  This was initially a shock - my default project plan has, in traditional fashion, months worth of evaluating, installing, and configuring various technology components before anything's up and running.   But as we began to execute in that way, I started to see that no, really, agile is possible for infrastructure work - at least "mostly."  Technologies like cloud computing help, but there's still a little more up front work required than with programming - but you can get mostly towards an agile methodology (and mindset!).

Then at OpsCamp last month, we discovered that there's been this whole Agile Operations/Automated Infrastructure/devops movement thing already in progress we hadn't heard about.  I don't keep in touch with The Blogosphere (tm) enough I guess.  Anyway, turns out a bunch of other folks have suddenly come to the exact same conclusion and there's exciting work going on re: how to make operations agile, automate infrastructure, and meld development and ops work.

So if  you also hadn't been up on this, here's a roundup of some good related core thoughts on these topics for your reading pleasure!