DevOps Automation: How to Streamline Pipelines Without Over-Automating

DevOps automation enables teams to streamline repetitive tasks by codifying processes using various scripting tools/technologies. Teams can automate most of the DevOps pipeline, including builds, testing, production deployments, and monitoring, as well as operations and Site Reliability Management (SRE) tasks like incident response

By leveraging DevOps automation, R&D organizations can achieve faster time to market, scalability that is not dependent on headcount, and proven repeatable operations, eliminating the element of human error. However, to ensure that automatic pipelines remain effective, teams should be careful to strike a balance between over-automation and under-automation. This article provides an in-depth overview of DevOps automation, including best practices to avoid common automation pitfalls.

In this article, you will learn:

  • What is DevOps automation?
  • Benefits of DevOps automation
  • How to avoid over-automation
  • DevOps automation best practices

What Is DevOps Automation?

DevOps automation involves tools, scripting languages, and other techniques used to streamline routine development and operational processes. It is used to standardize many of the formerly manual processes that were required for software development and delivery workflows. These automation methods are often implemented via DevOps pipelines.

In this section, you will learn about common areas of DevOps automation:

  • Builds and testing automation
  • Production deployments automation
  • Monitoring automation
  • Incident response automation 
3 key areas for DevOps automation

Automating Builds and Testing

Builds and build management are almost always automated in DevOps pipelines. This helps eliminate bottlenecks, ensure that builds are consistent and that you are using a consistent environment throughout the testing process. Likewise, much of the testing that is done during development is automated. 

DevOps automation testing includes: 

  • Pre-build tests—such as static code analysis, unit tests, contract tests, and module tests
  • Post-build tests—such as end-to-end, performance, security, and stress testing

By automating builds and tests helps, you can ensure code changes are checked and failed as quickly as possible if they contain bugs. This enables software development teams to streamline the delivery of new functionality without a negative impact on product stability.

Automating Creation of Development and Testing Environments

DevOps teams prefer to create development and testing environments automatically from Infrastructure as Code (IaC) templates. This makes it faster to create environments, eliminates human error from the process, and ensures that testing environments are consistent with eventual production environments. It also eliminates the need for ad-hoc requests by developers and testers from operations teams by shifting to a self-service model.

Automated management of environments eliminates the wasted resources created by leftover environments. It prevents unwanted reuse of environments, which can cause issues due to changes created during development or testing. Additionally, automated management helps reduce security risks by eliminating duplicate data and endpoints.

Automating Deployments to Production

Deployments are another area where DevOps automation is used frequently to increase the speed of release. When deployments are automated, it is easier for teams to ensure that configurations of staging and production environments are identical. It also enables teams to more flexibly define and follow specific release schedules and rollouts. 

Additionally, using automation, R&D can deliver new product functionality broken down to smaller functional pieces. This reduces stability risks and streamlines the feedback loop from product usage back to the product’s developers.

What is progressive delivery?

To facilitate reliable automated deployments, many teams rely on progressive delivery methods.

Progressive delivery is an extension of continuous delivery that implements feature flags and gradual rollouts. These additions help increase the speed and reduce the risk of deployments by limiting what is included in each release. 

Feature flags are switches that teams can use to turn specific functionally on or off during runtime. This ability can either be used for a “safe” rollout of new functionality on a segment of the user population, which grows in size as the team gains more confidence in the stability of the release. The technique can also be used for staging experiments and collecting feedback on the reaction of users to changes or new capabilities. 

This enables teams to deploy with minimal to no risk. It also enables testing features in production with live feedback from users and zeroes concerns about environmental incompatibilities. 

DevOps Monitoring

DevOps monitoring plays a double role when it comes to DevOps and automation. Much of the monitoring process itself is automated, including the collection of log data, processing of metrics, and alerting or notifying teams of various statuses or issues. 

Monitoring is also essential to ensure that automation is configured and applied correctly. When processes are automated, you can evaluate scripts and triggers based on the results, but this only provides limited information. By monitoring the entire automation process, including failures to fire or manual overrides you are better able to refine your automation pipelines and eliminate problems.

Automating Incident Response

Usually, when monitoring systems raise an alert, an operator performs an incident response process that includes the following stages:

  1. Alert data enrichment – collecting in-depth contextual information from the environment, targeted at understanding the extent of the issue and helping investigate its source.
  2. Problem triage – investigating the environment to understand the underlying reason for the alert being triggered. 
  3. Root Cause Analysis (RCA) – understanding the underlying reason that caused the alert to be triggered, typically a change to one of the organization’s systems.
  4. Resolving the root cause – fixing the problem and introducing mechanisms that will prevent similar issues in the future.

The StackPulse Site Reliability Management platform enables R&D and DevOps teams to automate processes that are triggered as a result of a monitoring alert. 

Creating an automated pipeline for incident response, using the above five-step process, increases the overall stability of product environments. It ensures consistent, human-error-free, repeatable, and scalable operations. 

Additionally, pragmatic use of automation:

  • Reduce the need for “context switch” that developers undergo when they need to handle urgent production issues. Context switch has been proven in numerous studies to significantly harm developer productivity. 
  • Reduce “alert fatigue” for operations and development teams, caused by large amounts of alerts produced by complex systems.

Why Should You Automate DevOps Processes?

The goal of DevOps philosophy is to increase the efficiency and collaboration of teams through visibility, streamlined processes, and continuous feedback. These goals are near impossible to achieve without automation.

In particular, automation provides DevOps teams with the following capabilities:

  • Faster time to market—enables teams to release working products faster since functional changes are integrated continuously without delays created by the separation of team responsibilities.
  • More time to create value—automation of tasks that are low-level, repetitive, or highly complex yet standardized, frees teams to focus on work that adds value to products and the business. Additionally, automation reduces the chances of human error in configuration, reducing the time spent locating and fixing issues. 
  • Efficient detection and removal of errors—automatic and standardized testing enables teams to find bugs earlier. This reduces the chance of wasted effort by ensuring that errors are fixed early and don’t affect later development. 
  • Faster feedback loops—faster releases mean faster feedback from users. These feedback loops reduce the chance that efforts are wasted on unwanted features and help steer efficient development.
  • Reduced operational cost and overheads—less time is spent manually performing tasks leaving more time for higher-value work. It also helps teams support high growth, and improve productivity, without increasing headcount. 
  • Self-sufficient teams—helps eliminate “gate-keeping” or bottlenecks created by reliance on a particular skill set. This helps ensure that all team members are accountable for their efforts and reduces the chance that team member changes will reduce productivity. 
  • Self-healing systems—automated responses to changes in availability or service functionality helps ensure the teams remain productive. These systems can also prevent issues arising from system failures, such as data loss or corruption. 

How to Strike the Balance Between DevOps Under- and Over-Automation?

When first adopting a DevOps culture, many organizations want to jump right in and automate everything. Unfortunately, this isn’t practical and can lead to disastrous results. For example, consider faulty automation of environment deployment. You could quickly run out of resource space or rack up a significant cloud services bill if you aren’t careful.

To avoid the above and other automation mishaps, it’s best to start gradually, delivering improvements iteratively, while monitoring the impact and adjusting the course of action. The following workflow can provide you a structure to guide automation processes:

  • Evaluate what tasks you are performing and what sort of expertise is needed to perform tasks.
  • Prioritize tasks for automation by identifying frequently repeated tasks, those with a high chance for human error, and those with a high return value.
  • Break down tasks into steps and identify the components used.
  • Identify tools or technologies that can help you automate your steps and ensure that the tools you choose integrate with task components.
  • Script and configure your automation processes.

After implementation, make sure you’re testing your automation under all possible conditions. If you find that it isn’t working as expected or isn’t providing the expected return, disable tasks until they are consistent enough to be used “in production”.

DevOps Automation Best Practices

When implementing automation in DevOps, there are several best practices you should adopt. A few to start with are introduced below.

Automate with the right tools

Automation is only effective if it reduces the amount of manual effort required, speeds processes up, or reduces the chance of error. To ensure that this is the case, you need to ensure that you are using the right DevOps automation tools. If tools require exhaustive maintenance, complex configurations, or extensive knowledge to use, they may not be worth the effort. 

Monitor performance

You should carefully monitor the results of your automation and your overall processes, especially at first. Monitoring helps you identify issues or performance bottlenecks and optimize your workflows. It can also help you catch automation errors that may introduce bugs or prevent quality assurance processes. For example, if you automate a misconfiguration of a test environment, your testing may not be accurate. 

Decide which processes and tests to automate first

It is essential to plan and prioritize your investments. Automation can seem like an overwhelming task at first. It can also be tempting to try to automate everything, but this is a mistake. Instead, you need to prioritize efforts based on what will return the greatest benefit. In particular, consider those tasks that are creating bottlenecks due to time or repetition as opposed to skill requirements and those significantly impacted by manual errors. 

Use pair testing on tests you don’t automate

Not everything can be automated, particularly when it comes to testing. For those processes that can’t, you should consider pair testing. Pair testing involves having two team members work together to transfer knowledge and double-check accuracy and efficiency. This method is particularly helpful for improving communication in teams and can help you identify areas for optimization that were otherwise overlooked. 

DevOps Automation Reloaded with StackPulse 

As more and more organizations adopt a DevOps culture and the associated organizational changes, automation becomes not only an important infrastructure initiative. Rather, it is a critical business flow with strong ties to improving business results.

Organizations that develop and operate software services (either for internal use or delivered as SaaS) are on the frontier of modern, efficient operational processes. Due to the complexity of modern software, production monitoring must be smart enough to identify deviations from expected norms, and produce accurate alerts. 

While an organization is still early in the product development and delivery cycle, DevOps, R&D and SRE teams can still respond manually to production alerts, using an on-call rotation system. However, at some point in an application’s development, this becomes inefficient, or even infeasible. You must identify when production alerts start impacting the teams’ abilities to develop and operate the service.

At some point, incident response automation becomes a must. Automating incident response does not necessarily require a high investment, to automate all possible scenarios. Using the principles we covered above, you can identify areas in the product that require the most manual incident response work and focus on processes that consume the most attention from dev and operations teams, and will thus yield the highest return on investment.

StackPulse is a Site Reliability Engineering platform that provides easy to master, 

flexible incident response automation: 

  • You can start by automating the initial data enrichment and triage stages for most common scenarios in just a few clicks. 
  • StackPulse offers a rich library of ready-made automation modules that can be leveraged in your environments using typical virtualization, database, messaging, containerization, and other software technologies. 

Get early access to StackPulse and create your first automatic incident response playbooks in minutes.

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