DevOps driving digital government

DevOps may be the means to enable more efficient delivery of solutions for digital government

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DevOps driving digital government Digital businesses and organisations, including government, are looking to DevOps to speed up the process of creating and deploying digital services.
By  Mark Sutton Published  June 5, 2017

The digital transformation of government is creating new demands from the IT function, in terms of being ready for innovation, fast time to market, increased collaboration and many other factors. At a strategic level, the digitisation of government may require organisational changes, restructuring, new collaborative tools and workspaces and more opportunities for brainstorming or inter-departmental co-ordination. For the IT team however, digital transformation is ramping up in the form of demands for many new and different skills, quicker time to market, more flexibility and new ways of working.

DevOps is one such new way of working, which is gaining attention from the government sector. As a methodology, DevOps is the close integration of software development and IT operations, (hence ‘DevOps’) usually including quality assurance as well, to create an environment of fast, agile and responsive software development. DevOps combines development and operations, requiring communications and collaboration between the two functions to speed up the cycle of software development and enable faster launching of services. The approach can create near continuous development and enhancement of digital services.

The approach is partly based on Agile software development methods, and is intended to enable an organisation to adopt a services-based approach, to launch new services more quickly, while maximizing the predictability, efficiency, security and maintainability of operational processes through rigorous controls, planning, approvals and testing at every stage.

While DevOps is seen as being essential to cloud computing and an important part of IT becoming more responsive to shifting demand, there is still relatively little uptake of the methodology in this region. A 2015 survey of CIOs in KSA and UAE showed only 22% had already implemented DevOps in their organisations. Concerns about security and compliance, and a lack of understanding of processes, roles and responsibilities throughout the development cycle were cited as reasons for the slow adoption. In government, progress towards DevOps has generally been more cautious than in the private sector, but there are many benefits for the public sector in embracing the approach, and for the customers and end users of the end product or services.

“To be a truly digital business, DevOps methodology is a must,” said Pankaj Prasad, principal research analyst, Gartner. “Any change or enhancement or new features for the benefit of the consumers can be rolled out at speeds dictated by business, reinforcing — through positive perception — a trust of being part of a truly global IT world, rather than giving a passive impression of ‘we’ll eventually get there’!

“Especially in the Gulf, government IT teams are increasingly embracing digitalization, which in turn involves adoption of innovative technologies which are suitable for DevOps,” Prasad added.

Simon Poulton, continuous delivery evangelist, EMEA, CA Technologies, spelled out the advantages: “There’s four main benefits which successful government enterprises see. These are decreasing time to market, [getting] the digital products in the hands of the citizens faster; increased quality; better efficiency and compliance — leveraging automation to deliver compliance against regulation, therefore increased compliance.”

Asif Javed, managing director and technology lead for Accenture Middle East and North Africa, said that government organisations are facing the same IT challenges as the private sector, albeit on a larger scale, so government is also becoming more conscious of the need to respond to their citizens’ digital lifestyles, and are studying the best way to fulfil this demand.

“As DevOps implies faster execution and better functionality, Government IT teams need to embrace this change to become effective in satisfying the needs of their citizens,” he said. “DevOps is a tool that will become more and more crucial as governments continue to move their IT services to the cloud, since it will allow for faster innovation. By applying DevOps practices, government organisations are able to react more quickly to legislative changes or the public’s feedback on services provided, and lead new areas of innovation.”

To prepare for DevOps, Javed said that government IT teams should set up a clear strategy that distinguishes between their service offerings and how those services are delivered to the public, re-organise to ensure they are prepared to deliver technology-enabled services more quickly and in a more reliable way, and upskill their delivery teams in DevOps and become more agile.

“For the above recommendations to be effective, governments need to move away from their ‘fear of the unknown and of change’ to ensure that all their entities are working together and collaborating,” he added.

The key principals to DevOps are agility and collaboration, Poulton said. In terms of the skills required, technical skills are important but they can be contracted in from partners. The more difficult requirements come from the ability to apply innovative approaches and finding experienced people who can create a DevOps model required of a modern software factory, and who will enable organisation-wide transformation.

It is more important that government leadership is ready for cultural change, he added: “Successful DevOps transformation requires a major buy-in from government enterprise leaders in terms of cultural change towards business-led technology decisions. DevOps is ultimately an approach to achieve an enterprise outcome, so management must be ready to set enterprise objectives with the technical delivery teams. This culture of full business participation is critical, and management need to be fully engaged in both the outcomes and the required changes.

“In terms of the culture of innovation, which must exist in order to pursue the technical solutions, there are many innovative initiatives already within the government sector in MENA, so some teams are ready in this sense. IT teams must also be ready to change their ways of working and their organisational structure, as well as adopting new tools if they are to be fully ready,” Poulton said.

DevOps practices require strong planning and management, and particularly strict control and procedural approaches to the development lifecycle. The continuous development, additions and enhancements to systems that DevOps defines means that quality control and testing must be an integral part of the process at every step. Automated testing and rigorous approval cycles are necessary to ensure that operations remain stable.

Javed explained that government organisations should embrace multi-speed delivery models that can accommodate both the rapid delivery of customer facing applications and the more traditional software development lifecycle targeted at sensitive applications. This requires changes to the software delivery model, but it is even more critical that the organisational model enables rapid decision making and the ability to cope with continuous change.

For any organisation that is looking to launch into DevOps, identifying the right candidate project is a good first step, Gartner’s Prasad said. Systems or small projects that are new, complex in nature or that demand a faster velocity are good choices, and projects also need to have the potential to demonstrate business value versus an acceptable level of risk, along with stakeholders who are “politically friendly”. IT operations need to be comfortable with giving up their risk-averse culture for DevOps projects.

“A short message to remember here is: start small, fail fast, learn faster, proceed to the next step and don’t get caught-up in the need for tools yet,” Prasad said.

“There is just one bottom-line here: Stick to the basics. DevOps is not a silver bullet. It enhances the digital experience by breaking the constraints caused by capabilities intended for situations wherein requirements are certain. This is not to be taken in the negative context — the so-called legacy systems, processes etc. got us here and they are still needed. For example, what we term as the ‘systems of record’, needs stringent processes which might be perceived as legacy or old-school, and not an ideal candidate for full-fledged DevOps practice at this point in time.

“In terms of skills and culture, there are no specialized ‘DevOps personnel’, rather, it is a culture that needs to be propagated from the top. A non-imposing idea of embracing failure, no-blame culture and dissolving perceived hierarchies amongst the teams involved. Once hierarchies and imposition of accountability with a single person come into play, DevOps is bound to fail: It is a team sport — either all win or all lose.”

DevOps is already gaining ground with government customers in some markets. Wes Caldwell is CTO of Intelligent Software Solutions, a US contractor which is working with government and military clients, where the speed to develop and deploy solutions is becoming a competitive technological advantage to clients.

Caldwell explained that the ecosystem for DevOps tools is large and diverse, particularly with a focus on IT automation through solutions such as Ansible, Puppet and Chef. The toolkit also includes CI/CD, container technology, IaaS and PaaS, hybrid cloud and others.

IT teams that can quickly learn and adopt new technologies is also an important part of the mix.

As a contractor, there are some challenges in matching the fluid nature of a DevOps approach with the strict approvals and requirements for delivery of government projects, but Caldwell said the efficiencies of better and more cost effective development weigh out. Managing a typical DevOps engagement with the government requires adherence to the same best practices and strict processes as any project.

“There are processes and procedures that we still follow in regards to disciplined project management when it comes to managing a software project for the government. The project plans will typically have the various Agile sprints defined, thus allowing for quick iteration and leveraging DevOps methodologies to some extent.

“If we are doing the development at the customer’s site or not, that will obviously dictate how agile we can be in quickly building and deploying a solution into the field. We could also have staging environments where we are constantly pushing new releases for government acceptance testing, etc,” he said.

Government-supported cloud environments, such as Amazon’s dedicated cloud offering, AWS GovCloud, also allow for the use of DevOps methods in a flexible environment, he added, where ISS’s developers can work from their own development centre while pushing updates to the client through a controlled cloud.

Caldwell said that even in sectors that might be expected to be more risk-adverse, such as the military, organisations are embracing the DevOps culture, motivated by the promised efficiencies: “The biggest benefit is the efficiency in iterating quicker on a solution for a customer, allowing feedback sooner and more often, and potentially getting that solution into the field sooner, thus giving the government more valuable, cost effective solutions. Because of the mission criticality, I do believe DevOps can help deliver time-critical solutions in an efficient manner to our government customers.”

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