DORA, DevOps, and Lessons for Network Engineers

DevOps Research and Assessment (DORA) released their 2018 Accelerate report on the state of DevOps at the end of 2018; I’m a little behind in my reading, so I just got around to reading it, and trying to figure out how to apply their findings to the infrastructure (networking) side of the world.

DORA found organizations that outsource entire functions, such as building an entire module or service, tend to perform more poorly than organizations that outsource by integrating individual developers into existing internal teams (page 43). It is surprising companies still think outsourcing entire functions is a good idea, given the many years of experience the IT world has with the failures of this model. Outsourced components, it seems, too often become a bottleneck in the system, especially as contracts constrain your ability to react to real-world changes. Beyond this, outsourcing an entire function not only moves the work to an outside organization, but also the expertise. Once you have lost critical mass in an area, and any opportunity for employees to learn about that area, you lose control over that aspect of your system.

DORA also found a correlation between faster delivery of software and reduced Mean Time To Repair (MTTR) (page 19). On the surface, this makes sense. Shops that delivery software continuously are bound to have faster, more regularly exercised processes in place for developing, testing, and rolling out a change. Repairing a fault or failure requires change; anything that improves the speed of rolling out a change is going to drive MTTR down.

Organizations that emphasize monitoring and observability tended to perform better than others (page 55). This has major implications for network engineering, where telemetry and management are often “bolted on” as an afterthought, much like security. This is clearly not optimal, however—telemetry and network management need to be designed and operated like any other application. Data sources, stores, presentation, and analysis need to be segmented into separate services, so new services can be tried out on top of existing data, and new sources can feed into existing services. Network designers need to think about how telemetry will flow through the management system, including where and how it will originate, and what it will be used for.

These observations about faster delivery and observability should drive a new way of thinking about failure domains; while failure domains are often primarily thought of as reducing the “blast radius” when a router or link fails, they serve two much larger roles. First, failure domain boundaries are good places to gather telemetry because this is where information flows through some form of interaction surface between two modules. Information gathered at a failure domain boundary will not tend to change as often, and it will often represent the operational status of the entire module.

Second, well places failure domain boundaries can be used to stake out areas where “new things” can be put in operation with some degree of confidence. If a network has well-designed failure domain boundaries, it is much easier to deploy new software, hardware, and functionality in a controlled way. This enables a more agile view of network operations, including the ability to roll out changes incrementally through a canary process, and to use processes like chaos monkey to understand and correct unexpected failure modes.

Another interesting observation is the j-curve of adoption (page 3):

This j-curve shows the “tax” of building the underlying structures needed to move from a less automated state to a more automated one. Keith’s Law:

In a complex system, the cumulative effect of a large number of small optimizations is externally indistinguishable from a radical leap.

…operates in part because of this j-curve. Do not be discouraged if it seems to take a lot of work to make small amounts of progress in many stages of system development—the results will come later.

The bottom line: it might seem like a report about software development is too far outside the realm of network engineering to be useful—but the reality is network engineers can learn a lot about how to design, build, and operate a network from software engineers.