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InfoQ Homepage Articles Dark Side of DevOps - the Price of Shifting Left and Ways to Make it Affordable

Dark Side of DevOps - the Price of Shifting Left and Ways to Make it Affordable


Key Takeaways

  • DevOps adoption and Shifting Left movement empower developers, but also create additional cognitive load for them
  • A set of pre-selected best practices, packaged as a Paved Path - can alleviate some of the cognitive load without creating unnecessary barriers
  • However, as companies evolve, Paved Path(s) have to evolve to keep up with changes in technology and business needs - one Paved Path may not be enough
  • Eventually a company needs to separate responsibilities between experts (responsible for defining Paved Paths) and developers (who can use Paved Paths to remove routine and concentrate on solving business problems)
  • It is important to evaluate which stage of DevOps journey your company is at, so no effort is wasted on solving a “cool” problem instead of the problem you actually have

Topics like “you build it, you run it” and “shifting testing/security/data governance left” are popular: moving things to the earlier stages of software development, empowering engineers, and shifting control bring proven benefits.

Yet, what is the cost? What does it mean for the developers who are involved?

The benefits for developers are clear: you get more control, you can address issues earlier in the development cycle, and you shorten the feedback loop. However, your responsibilities are growing beyond your code  - now they include security, infrastructure and other things that have been “shifted left”. That’s especially important since the best practices in those areas are constantly evolving - the demand of upkeep is high (and so is the cost!).

What are the solutions that can help you keep DevOps and Shifting Left? What can we do to break a grip of the dark side? Let’s find out!

The Impact on Developers of Shifting Left Activities

When we shift some of the software development lifecycle activities left, that’s it; when we move them to the earlier stage of our software development process, we can empower developers. According to the State of DevOps report, companies with best DevOps practices show more than 50% reduction in change failure rates, despite having higher deployment frequency (multiple deployments a day for top performers vs. deploying changes once in 6+ months for bottom performers).

The reason is obvious - the developers in top-performing companies do not have to suffer from the long feedback cycle - for example, when we shift testing from the “Deploy & Release” stage to the “Develop & Build” stage, it means that the developers won’t have to wait days or even weeks for the QA to verify their changes, they can catch bugs earlier. If we shift testing further left - to the “Plan & Design stage”, it means that developers won’t have to spend their time building code that is defective by design.

However, it is not a silver bullet - Shifting Left also means that developers have to learn things like testing methodologies and tools (e.g., TDD, JUnit, Spock, build orchestration tools like GitHub Actions).  

On top of that, Shifting Left doesn’t stop with shifting left testing - more and more things are shifted left, for example security or data governance. All this adds to the developers’ cognitive load. Developers have to learn this tool, they have to adopt best practices and they need to keep their code in infrastructure up-to-date as those best practices change.

Growth of Responsibilities

On the one hand, not having a gatekeeper feels great. Developers don’t have to wait for somebody’s approval - they can iterate faster and write better code because their feedback loop is shorter, and it is easier to catch and fix bugs.

On the other hand, the added cognitive load is measurable - all the tools and techniques that developers have to learn now require time and mental effort. Some developers don’t want that - they just want to concentrate on writing their own code, on solving business problems.

For example, one developer may be happy to be able to experiment with deployment tools, to be able to migrate deployment pipeline from Jenkins to Spinnaker to get native out-of-the box canary support. However, other developers may not be so excited about having to deal with those tools, especially if they already have a lot on their plate.

Steps in a DevOps Journey - Ad-Hoc DevOps Adoption

These additional responsibilities don’t come for free. The actual cost, though, depends on the size of the company and on the complexity of its computing infrastructure. For smaller companies, where a handful of people are working together on just a few services/components, the cognitive load is minimal. After all, everybody knows everybody else and what they are working on; exchanging context doesn’t take a lot of effort. In this condition, removing artificial barriers and empowering developers by shifting some of the SDLC activities left can bring immediate benefits.

Even in large companies like Netflix there is room for manually managed solutions. For example, if a particular application has caches that have to be warmed up before it can start accepting production traffic, then a team that owns that application can create a manually managed deployment pipeline to make sure that a custom warm-up period is observed before the application can start taking traffic (so a redeployment won’t cause a performance degradation). 

Steps in a DevOps Journey - Paved Path

However, as companies grow, so does the complexity of their IT infrastructure. Maintaining dozens of interconnected services is not a trivial task anymore. Even locating their respective owners is not so easy. At this point, companies face a choice - either reintroducing the gatekeeping practices that negatively affect productivity, or to provide a paved path - a set of predefined solutions that codifies the best practices, and takes away mental toil, allowing developers to concentrate on solving business problems.

Creating and maintaining a paved path requires investment- someone has to identify the pain points, organise tooling for the paved path that developers can interact with, write documentation, invest in developers’ education. Someone needs to monitor the outliers - if the applications that are not using the paved path solution perform better, maybe it is worth borrowing whatever they are doing and incorporating it into the paved path?

The investment into the paved path is balanced by decreasing the cognitive load for developers. Developers can stop worrying about all the things that are being shifted left and start concentrating on delivering value, on solving core business problems. For example, they can rely on CLI tools (as Netflix’s newt) or internal developer portal (like Spotify’s Backstage) to bootstrap all required infrastructure in one click - no more manual set up of GitHub repositories, CI/CD pipelines and cloud resources like AWS security groups and scaling policies. All this can - and should be - provided out-of-the-box.

On top of that, if the experts take care of migrations, developers don’t have to deal with the cognitive load caused by those migrations. For example, when streaming backend services Netflix had to be updated to pick up a new version of AWS instance metadata API to improve security - the existing paved path was changed transparently for the developers. Encapsulating AWS settings as code allowed rolling out the change for the services that used the paved path with zero additional cognitive load and zero interruptions.

Steps in a DevOps Journey - Multiple Composable Paved Paths

Finally, as the companies keep growing, one paved path cannot encompass all the diversity of best practices for the services and components that are being developed. Multiple paved paths have to be created and maintained, and common parts between these paths have to be identified and reused, requiring additional investment.

For example, Netflix streaming services have to serve millions of users, so their latency and availability requirements are drastically different from internally facing tools that are used by Netflix employees. Both groups will have different best practices - the streaming apps will benefit from canaries and red-black deployments, which don’t make much sense for the internal tools (since they may not have enough traffic to provide a reliable signal for canaries). On the other hand, these two groups may have common practices, like continuous testing and integration, and it makes sense to codify those practices as separate building blocks to be reused across different paved paths.

Next Steps in YOUR DevOps Journey

The first step is identifying the actual problem caused by shifting left. If you have a small cross-functional team, the hardest problem may be identifying what you need to shift left. For example, your team may be suffering from deployment failures- in this case you may need to invest into testing and CI/CD pipelines.

Even if you don’t find the right solution right away, migrating from one solution to another does not require that much time and effort. The worst that can happen is choosing the wrong pain point, choosing the wrong problem to solve. However, if you find the right leverage point, then even an imperfect solution can improve things. For example, if you realise that Jenkins-based CI pipelines are hard to manage and it would be better to migrate to Github Actions, this kind of migration is not prohibitive, when you just deal with a handful of services.

The actual developer experience plays a crucial role here - it always makes sense to listen to developers, to observe their work so you can find out what the main problem is.

Without that, you may end up chasing the latest trend instead of problems that you actually have. I’ve seen people deciding to copy practices that are popular in large companies, and sometimes it is the right call, but often you don’t even have the same kind of problem that other companies do. Sometimes things that are antipatterns for other companies can be a right fit for you. For example, you may not need to invest in microservices orchestration when your problem is simple enough to be solved with a monolith (even though very often a monolith is a genuine anti-pattern).

Another thing to consider is a build-vs-buy problem. Many companies suffer from Not Invented Here syndrome, coming up with custom solutions instead of choosing a third party tool. On the other hand, even third party tools have to be integrated with each other and existing internal tools to provide a seamless developer experience. (Personally, I think if the problem is either unique to your company or close to your company’s core business, it may be worth investing in custom solutions.)

Finally, to make sure you’re heading in the right direction, it makes sense to keep track of metrics like Deployment Frequency (how often do you deploy to production? Once a month? Once a week? Daily?) and Change Failure Rate (how often do your deployments break?). Another set of metrics to monitor is time to bootstrap a service and time to reconfigure a service (or a fleet of services).

Together, those metrics can help you estimate your ability to deliver quality code as well as the time developers spend on non-coding activities - and hopefully, they can help you make the next step in your DevOps journey.

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