#devops Tools for automating – and optimizing – processes are a must-have for enabling continuous delivery of application deployments

practicemakesperfect-chineseSome idioms are cross-cultural and cross-temporal. They transcend cultures and time, remaining relevant no matter where or when they are spoken. These idioms are often referred to as proverbs, which carries with it a sense of enduring wisdom. One such idiom, “practice makes perfect”, can be found in just about every culture in some form. In Chinese, for example, the idiom is apparently properly read as “familiarity through doing creates high proficiency”, i.e. practice makes perfect.

This is a central tenet of devops, particularly where optimization of operational processes is concerned. The more often you execute a process, the more likely you are to get better at it and discover what activities (steps) within that process may need tweaking or changes or improvements. Ergo, optimization. This tenet grows out of the agile methodology adopted by devops: application release cycles should be nearly continuous, with both developers and operations iterating over the same process – develop, test, deploy – with a high level of frequency.

Eventually (one hopes) we achieve process perfection – or at least what we might call process perfection: repeatable, consistent deployment success.

It is implied that in order to achieve this many processes will be automated, once we have discovered and defined them in such a way as to enable them to be automated. But how does one automate a process such as an application release cycle? Business Process Management (BPM) works well for automating business workflows; such systems include adapters and plug-ins that allow communication between systems as well as people. But these systems are not designed for operations; there are no web servers or databases or Load balancer adapters for even the most widely adopted BPM systems.

One such solution can be found in Electric Cloud with its recently announced ElectricDeploy.

Process Automation for Operations

ElectricDeploy is built upon a more well known product from Electric Cloud (well, more well-known in developer circles, at least) known as ElectricCommander, a build-test-deploy application deployment system. Its interface presents applications in terms of tiers – but extends beyond the traditional three-tiers associated with development to include infrastructure services such as – you guessed it – load balancers (yes, including BIG-IP) and virtual infrastructure.

Electric Cloud Survey-Infographic1 app_modelingThe view enables operators to create the tiers appropriate to applications and then orchestrate deployment processes through fairly predictable phases – test, QA, pre-production and production. What’s hawesome about the tools is the ability to control the process – to rollback, to restore, and even debug. The debugging capabilities enable operators to stop at specified tasks in order to examine output from systems, check log files, etc..to ensure the process is executing properly. While it’s not able to perform “step into” debugging (stepping into the configuration of the load balancer, for example, and manually executing line by line changes) it can perform what developers know as “step over” debugging, which means you can step through a process at the highest layer and pause at break points, but you can’t yet dive into the actual task.

Still, the ability to pause an executing process and examine output, as well as rollback or restore specific process versions (yes, it versions the processes as well, just as you’d expect) would certainly be a boon to operations in the quest to adopt tools and methodologies from development that can aid them in improving time and consistency of deployments. The tool also enables operations to determine what is failure during a deployment. For example, you may want to stop and rollback the deployment when a server fails to launch if your deployment only comprises 2 or 3 servers, but when it comprises 1000s it may be acceptable that a few fail to launch. Success and failure of individual tasks as well as the overall process are defined by the organization and allow for flexibility. 

This is more than just automation, it’s managed automation; it’s agile in action; it’s focusing on the processes, not the plumbing. 

MANUAL still RULES

Electric Cloud recently (June 2012) conducted a survey on the “state of application deployments today” and found some not unexpected but still frustrating results including that 75% of application deployments are still performed manually or with little to no automation. While automation may not be the goal of devops, but it is a tool enabling operations to achieve its goals and thus it should be more broadly considered as standard operating procedure to automate as much of the deployment process as possible. This is particularly true when operations fully adopts not only the premise of devops but the conclusion resulting from its agile roots. Tighter, faster, more frequent release cycles necessarily puts an additional burden on operations to execute the same processes over and over again. Trying to manually accomplish this may be setting operations up for failure and leave operations focused more on simply going through the motions and getting the application into production successfully than on streamlining and optimizing the processes they are executing. 

Electric Cloud’s ElectricDeploy is one of the ways in which process optimization can be achieved, and justifies its purchase by operations by promising to enable better control over application deployment processes across development and infrastructure.