Operability

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Why is it wrong to assume failures are preventable in IT? Why does optimising for robustness leave organisations ill-equipped to deal with failure, and what are the usual outcomes?

In this article Steve Smith explains why a production environment is always in a state of near-failure, why optimising for robustness results in a brittle incident response process, and why Dual Value Streams are a common countermeasure to failure.

  1. The Cost And Theatre Of Optimising For Robustness
  2. When Optimising For Robustness Fails
  3. The Value Of Optimising For Resilience – TBA
  4. Resilience As A Continuous Delivery Enabler – TBA

THE UNDERINVESTMENT IN PRODUCTION

An organisation that optimises for robustness will attempt to maintain a production environment free from failure. This approach is based on the belief that failures in IT services are caused by isolated, faulty changes that are entirely preventable. A production environment is viewed as a set of homogeneous processes, with predictable interactions occurring in repeatable conditions. This matches the Cynefin definition of a complicated system, in which expert knowledge can be used to predict the cause and effect of events.

Optimising for robustness will inevitably lead to an overinvestment in pre-production risk management, and an underinvestment in production risk management. Symptoms of underinvestment include:

  • Stagnant requirements – “non-functional” requirements are deprioritised for weeks or months at a time
  • Snowflake infrastructure – environments are manually created and maintained in an unreproducible state
  • Inadequate telemetry – logs and metrics are scarce, anomaly detection and alerting are manual, and user analytics lack insights
  • Fragile architecture – services are coupled, service instances are stateful, failures are uncontained, and load vulnerabilities exist
  • Insufficient training – operators are not given the necessary coaching, education, or guidance

This underinvestment creates an inoperable production environment, which makes it difficult for operators to keep IT services in a safe and reliable functioning condition. This will often be deemed acceptable, as production failures are expected to be rare.

THE CONSTANCY OF FAILURE

A production environment of running IT services is not a complicated system. It is an intractable mass of heterogeneous processes, with unpredictable interactions occurring in unrepeatable conditions. It is a complex system of emergent behaviours, in which the cause and effect of an event can only be perceived in retrospect.

As Richard Cook explains in How Complex Systems Fail, “the complexity of these systems makes it impossible for them to run without multiple flaws being present“. A production environment always contains partial faults, and is constantly in a state of near-failure.

A failure will occur when unrelated faults unexpectedly coalesce such that one or more functions cannot succeed. Its revenue cost will be a function of cost per unit time and duration, with cost per unit time the economic impact and duration the time between start and end. Its opportunity costs will come from loss of customer confidence, and increased failure demand slowing feature development.

An organisation optimised for robustness will be ill-equipped to deal with a failure when it does occur. The inoperability of the production environment will produce a brittle incident response:

  • Stagnant requirements and insufficient training will make it difficult to anticipate how services might fail
  • Inadequate telemetry will impede the monitoring of normal versus abnormal operating conditions
  • Snowflake infrastructure and a fragile architecture will prevent a rapid response to failure

For example, at Fruits-U-Like a third party registration service begins to suffer under load. The website rejects new customers on checkout, and a failure begins with a static cost per unit time of £80K per day. A lack of telemetry means the operations team cannot triage for 3 days. After triage an incident is assigned to the checkout team, who improve connection handling within a day. The Change Advisory Board agrees the fix can skip End-To-End Testing, and it is deployed the following day. The failure has a 5 day repair cost of £400K, with a detection sunk cost of £240K and a remediation opportunity cost of £160K.

After a failure, the assumption that failures are caused by individuals will lead to a blame culture. There will be an attitude Sidney Dekker calls the Bad Apple Theory, in which production is considered absolutely reliable bar the actions of a few unreliable employees. The combination of the Bad Apple Theory and hindsight bias will create an oppressive culture of naming, blaming, and shaming the individuals involved. This discourages the sharing of operational knowledge and organisational learnings.

THE DUAL VALUE STREAMS COUNTERMEASURE

An organisation optimised for robustness will be in a state of Discontinuous Delivery. Attempting to increase the Mean Time Between Failures (MTBF) with practices such as End-To-End Testing will increase feature lead times to the extent that business demand will be unsatisfiable. However, the rules for deploying a production fix will be very different.

When a production fix for a failure is available, people will share a sense of urgency. Regardless of how cost per unit time is estimated, there will be a recognition that a sunk cost has been incurred and an opportunity cost needs to be minimised. There will be a consensus that a different approach is required to avoid long feature lead times.

Dual Value Streams is a common countermeasure to failure when optimising for robustness. For each technology value stream in situ, there will actually be two different value streams. The feature value stream will retain all the advertised pre-production risk management practices, and will take weeks or months to complete. The fix value stream will strip out most if not all pre-production activities, and will take days to complete.

At Fruits-U-Like, that means a 12 week feature value stream from code to production and a 5 day fix value stream from failure start to end 2.

 

Dual Value Streams signify Discontinuous Delivery, but they also show potential for Continuous Delivery. The fix value stream indicates the lead times that can be accomplished when people have a shared sense of urgency, actively collaborate on releases, and omit the risk management theatre of extensive pre-production risk management.

1 In The DevOps Handbook by Patrick Debois et al telemetry is defined as a logical grouping of logging, monitoring, anomaly detection, alerting, and user analytics

2 Measuring Continuous Delivery details why deployment failure recovery time should include development time and deployment lead time should not. Deployment failure recovery time is measured from failure start to failure end, while deployment lead time is measured from master commit to production deployment

The Resilience As A Continuous Delivery Enabler series:

  1. The Cost And Theatre Of Optimising For Robustness
  2. Responding To Failure When Optimising For Robustness
  3. The Value Of Optimising For Resilience – TBA
  4. Resilience As A Continuous Delivery Enabler – TBA

Acknowledgements

This series is indebted to John Allspaw and Dave Snowden for their respective work on Resilience Engineering and Cynefin.

Thanks to Beccy Stafford, Charles Kubicek, Chris O’Dell, Edd Grant, Daniel Mitchell, Martin Jackson, and Thierry de Pauw for their feedback on this series.

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Why do so many organisations optimise their IT delivery for robustness? What risk management practices are normally involved, and do their capabilities outweigh their costs?

In this article Steve Smith explains what optimising for robustness is, and why it is inadequate for IT delivery. This is part of the Resilience As A Continuous Delivery Enabler series:

  1. The Cost And Theatre Of Optimising For Robustness
  2. When Optimising For Robustness Fails
  3. The Value Of Optimising For Resilience – TBA
  4. Resilience As A Continuous Delivery Enabler – TBA

The robustness tradition

As software continues to eat the world, organisations must position IT at the heart of their business strategy. The speed of IT delivery needs to be capable of satisfying customer demand, and at the same time the reliability of IT services must be ensured to protect daily business operations.

In Practical Reliability Engineering, Patrick O’Connor and Andre Kleyner define reliability as “The probability that [a system] will perform a required function without failure under stated conditions for a stated period of time“. When an organisation has unreliable IT services its business operations are left vulnerable to IT outages, and the cost of downtime could prove ruinous if market conditions are unfavourable. Such an organisation will have an ingrained fear of failure, due to the lack of confidence in those IT services. There will also be a simultaneous belief that failures are preventable, based on the assumption that IT services are predictable and failures are caused by isolated changes.

In these circumstances an organisation will traditionally optimise for robustness. It will focus on maximising the ability of its IT services to “resist change without adapting [their] initial stable configuration, by increasing Mean Time Between Failures (MTBF). It will use robustness-centric risk management practices in its technology value streams to reduce the risk of future failures, such as 1:

  • End-To-End Testing to verify the functionality of a new service version against its unowned dependent services
  • Change Advisory Boards to assess, prioritise, and approve the deployment of new service versions
  • Change Freezes to restrict the deployment of new service versions for a period of time derived from market conditions

Consider a fictional Fruits-U-Like organisation, with development teams working to 2 week iterations and a quarterly release cycle. Fruits-U-Like has optimised itself for robustness ever since a 24 hour website outage 5 years ago. Each release goes through 6 weeks of End-To-End Testing with the testing team, a 2 week Change Advisory Board, and 1 week of preparation with the operations team. There are also several 4 week Change Freezes throughout the year, to coincide with marketing campaigns.

Costs and Risk Management Theatre

Robustness is a desirable capability of an IT service, but optimising for robustness invariably means spending too much time for too little risk reduction. The risk management practices used will be far more costly and less valuable than expected:

If the next Fruits-U-Like release was estimated to be worth £50K per day in new revenue, the 12 week lead time would create a total opportunity cost of £4.2 million. This would include the handover delays between the development, testing, and operations teams due to misaligned priorities. If a Change Freeze delayed the deployment by another 4 weeks the opportunity cost would increase to £5.6 million.

These risk management practices are what Jez Humble calls Risk Management Theatre. They are based on the misguided assumption that preventative controls on everyone will prevent anyone from making a mistake. Furthermore, they actually increase risk by ensuring a large batch size and a sizeable amount of requirements/technology changes per service version 2. They impede knowledge sharing, restrict situational awareness, create enormous opportunity costs, and doom organisations to a state of Discontinuous Delivery.

1 Other practices include manual regression testing, segregation of duties, and uptime incentives for operators

2 The Principles of Product Development Flow by Don Reinertsen describes in detail how large batch sizes increase risk

The Resilience As A Continuous Delivery Enabler series:

  1. The Cost And Theatre Of Optimising For Robustness
  2. When Optimising For Robustness Fails
  3. The Value Of Optimising For Resilience – TBA
  4. Resilience As A Continuous Delivery Enabler – TBA

Acknowledgements

This series is indebted to John Allspaw and Dave Snowden for their respective work on Resilience Engineering and Cynefin.

Thanks to Beccy Stafford, Charles Kubicek, Chris O’Dell, Edd Grant, Daniel Mitchell, Martin Jackson, and Thierry de Pauw for their feedback on this series.

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The DevOps Handbook describes an admirable DevOps As A Philosophy based on flow, feedback, continual learning and experimentation. However, a near-decade of naivety, confusion, and profiteering surrounding DevOps has left the IT industry with DevOps As A Cult, and the benefits of Operability are all too often overlooked.

In this article Steve Smith explains why DevOps As A Philosophy is a laudable ideal, why DevOps As A Cult is the unpleasant reality, and why organisations should instead focus on Operability as an enabler of Continuous Delivery.

This article includes material from our popular Continuous Delivery For Managers and Continuous Delivery For Practitioners training courses.

Introduction

When an IT organisation has separate Development and Operations departments it will inevitably suffer from a serious conflict of interest. The Development teams will be told to keep pace with the market and incentivised by features, while the Operations teams will be told to provide reliability and incentivised by uptime. This creates a troubled relationship in which one party tries to maximise production changes, and the other tries to minimise them.

This conflict of interest has a devastating impact on the stability, throughput, and quality of IT services. It produces unstable, unreliable, and insecure services vulnerable to costly outages. It ensures production changes are delayed by days, weeks, or even months due to endless coordination between teams, convoluted change approvals, and fear of failure. It results in significant amounts of functional and operational rework, and constant firefighting just to keep systems up and running. It means the organisation loses out in the marketplace, due to the high opportunity costs incurred and the high attrition rate of employees.

DevOps As A Philosophy

In 2008, Patrick Debois and Andrew Schafer discussed at Agile 2008 the application of Agile practices to infrastructure. In 2009, John Allspaw and Paul Hammond shared with Velocity 2009 their famous “10 Deploys per Day: Dev and Ops Cooperation at Flickr” story, and Patrick Debois subsequently created the first DevOpsDays conference. The DevOps philosophy of collaboration between Development and Operations had begun.

In 2016, the DevOps Handbook was published by Gene Kim, Jez Humble, Patrick Debois, and John Willis. The DevOps Handbook builds on the Phoenix Project novel by Gene Kim, Kevin Behr, and George Spafford in 2013, and it describes how the Three Ways of DevOps can help organisations to succeed:

  • The First Way: The Principles of Flow – create a continuous flow of value-add from Development to Operations
  • The Second Way: The Principles of Feedback – create a constant flow of feedback from Operations to Development
  • The Third Way: The Principles of Continual Learning and Experimentation – create a culture of ever-increasing knowledge within Development and Operations

The DevOps Handbook advocates long-lived product teams frequently deploying changes during normal business hours, using ubiquitous monitoring to quickly resolve errors, and building a shared culture of Continuous Improvement. It is a seminal work that describes what DevOps should beDevOps As A Philosophy.

DevOps As A Cult

Unfortunately, there were 7 years between the creation of the DevOps meme and the publication of The DevOps Handbook. In the meantime, a different kind of DevOps has emerged that is entirely distinct from DevOps As A Philosophy yet regrettably popular within the IT industry. This bastardisation of DevOps is a cult based on confusion, naivety, and profiteering.

There has been a great deal of confusion about what DevOps actually is, and many organisations have unwittingly increased their disorder by attempting to adopt DevOps without understanding it. For example, there is now the notion of a DevOps Engineer, in which DevOps is equated with a Infrastructure As Code specialist and any need for further change is ignored. Another example is the DevOps Team, in which a team of DevOps Engineers or similar is inserted between Development and Operations teams and becomes yet another delivery impediment. As Jez Humble has remarked, “creating another functional silo that sits between Dev and Ops is clearly a poor (and ironic) way to try and solve these problems“.

Many people have naively latched onto DevOps via misinformation and with little appreciation of their organisational complexity and context. In a complex, adaptive system every individual has limited information, the cause and effect of an event cannot be predicted, and the system must be probed for insights. One common error is to literally assume the conflict of interest between Development and Operations is always the key constraint, when other emerging conflicts can be equally ruinous such as between separate Development and Testing departments. Another error is to assume large enterprise organisations need some kind of Enterprise DevOps roadmap, despite the ineffectuality of blueprints in a complex system and Dave Roberts pointing out “flow and continuous improvement are equally applicable to a large enterprise as they are to an agile web startup“.

Finally, the lack of clarity on DevOps has led to unabashed profiteering from some recruitment firms and vendors. This can be seen when recruitment firms rebrand sysadmins as DevOps Engineers, or when vendors market their automation tools as DevOps tools. DevOps certification has even been launched by the DevOps Institute, which sells one interpretation of a complex cultural movement and of which Sam Newman complained “aside from perhaps three practitioners, the rest of the group are either professional trainers or sales and marketing people“.

Many organisations that have attempted to adopt DevOps still suffer from short-lived project teams infrequently deploying changes out of business hours, manual regression testing without telemetry, and an antagonistic culture with minimal knowledge sharing. The application of confusion, naivety, and profiteering to the DevOps meme has resulted in what DevOps should not be – DevOps As A Cult.

Aim for Operability, not DevOps As A Cult

The rise of DevOps coincided with the rise of Continuous Delivery, which is explicitly focussed on the improvement of IT stability and throughput to satisfy business demand. Continuous Delivery does not need DevOps As A Philosophy but they can be thought of as complementary, due to their shared emphasis on fast feedback loops, cultural change, and task automation. DevOps As A Cult has no such standing, as shown by Dave Farley stating that “DevOps rarely says enough about the goal of delivering valuable software… this is no place for cargo-cultism“.

Continuous Delivery requires operational excellence to be built into organisations. If a service is unstable, a high level of throughput is impossible to sustain as the rework incurred during periods of instability will restrict the delivery of new features. This means Operability is of critical importance to Continuous Delivery, as throughput is dependent upon the ability of the organisation to maintain safe and reliable systems according to its operational requirements.

Both Continuous Delivery and DevOps As A Philosophy advocate the following operational practices to improve Operability:

  • Prioritisation of operational requirements – plan and prioritise work on configuration, infrastructure, performance, security, etc. alongside new features
  • Automated infrastructure – automate production infrastructure and build a self-service provisioning capability for on-demand pre-production environments
  • Deployment health checks – incorporate system health checks and functional smoke tests into pre-production and production deployments
  • Pervasive telemetry – establish a logging/monitoring platform for the aggregation, visualisation, anomaly detection, and alerting of business-level, application-level, and operational-level events
  • Failure injection – introduce simulated errors under controlled conditions into production systems, and rehearse incident response scenarios
  • Incident swarming – encourage people to work together to identify and resolve production incidents as soon as they occur
  • Blameless post-mortems – hold post-incident reviews to understand the context, cause and effect, and remediation of a production incident, and propose countermeasures for the future
  • Shared on-call responsibilities – ensure all team members are on rotation for production incidents, and empowered to handle incidents when they occur

Teams need to adopt a “You Build It, You Run It” culture, in which everyone contributes to operational practices and everyone is responsible for Operability. This means teams will need guidance on how to build, deploy, and run services plus how to create the operational toolchain to support those services. Operability engineers are required, that

 

For this reason operability engineers should be embedded into teams, to share their expertise on the delivery of operational requirements and coach other team members on architecting for resilience, establishing a telemetry platform, adopting a mindset of operational excellence, etc. If there are more teams than available operability engineers then every team should have an operability engineer assigned in a liaison role.

Conclusion

In many organisations the conflict of interest between Development and Operations is enormously damaging, and DevOps As A Philosophy as described in the DevOps Handbook is an admirable model for improving organisations via fast flow, fast feedback, and a culture of learning and experimentation. However, the confusion, naivety, and profiteering surrounding DevOps has led to DevOps As A Cult within the IT industry, and unfortunately its popularity is matched only by its inability to improve organisations.

An organisation that wishes to improve its time to market should adopt Continuous Delivery and aim for Operability. That means operability engineers working on teams to teach others how to adopt an operational mindset and build the necessary tools. Continuous Delivery needs operability, and by achieving operational excellence an organisation can improve its throughput and obtain a strategic competitive advantage in the marketplace.

Thanks to Beccy Stafford, Charles Kubicek, Chris O’ Dell, Edd Grant, John Clapham, and Martin Jackson for their feedback

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