Get Your Head Out of Your aaS

3815168722_faee10cf62_bI’ve been floating between the worlds of Cloud and DevOps for a while now and it is interesting to see the Cloud world finally start to realize the real value is in DevOps. It’s great that more people are starting to pay attention to this cultural and professional movement. What is not great is how the Cloud experts tend to get wrapped up in some debates that are trivial and meaningless, in the larger scheme of things. Take for instance two persistent debates I am seeing over IaaS vs. PaaS, and then which PaaS is better. I hate to be the one to break it to these camps, but it doesn’t matter; at the end of the day you are selling plumbing fixtures that crap flows through.

To understand what I mean, lets take a step back. In 2008, I started pursuing my MBA at The Ohio State University. One of the core requirements of the degree was Operations Management. In Operations Management, you learn manufacturing optimization through ideas such as Lean and Six Sigma. The book “Learning to See” was part of the course material and it focused on optimization of manufacturing processes through visualization, also known as Value Stream Mapping. As the course progressed, I had a personal epiphany. As we kept walking through manufacturing processes, and Value Streams, what I quickly realized was that the work we did in IT was all about manufacturing a good or service someone would be consuming. Automation in the IT world is about (or should be about) optimizing these Value Streams and (hopefully) eliminating waste from the system. My Operations Management course really taught me to see (pun intended) and to think differently about how we worked in IT.

I took this new found knowledge back to my work where it was summarily ignored by my boss and coworkers, and lacking support I shelved my ideas. Little did I know many of the Lean principals I had learned would be at the forefront of how IT is changing today, and was already being changed at that time in 2008, I just didn’t know it.

When somebody asks me what DevOps is, I often respond with the simple idea that “DevOps is about increasing the flow of work through IT.” I borrow this idea heavily from “The Phoenix Project“, but I find it is the most simplest way to capture the essence of this cultural and Imageprofessional movement. And that is where Value Stream Mapping and the ideas of Lean come into the conversation. Books like the “The Phoenix Project“, and notable DevOps contributors such as John Willis expound the values of these techniques to optimize the IT Manufacturing chain, be it Development work or Operations work.

Value Stream Maps are relatively simple. They identify the flow of a raw material through Screen Shot 2014-04-03 at 11.07.33 PMvarious processes that add value. They also identify areas of waste in the system, and they help in building the Future State Map, or the Value Stream that you want to achieve in the future after optimizing the system. The most basic and valuable thing about Value Stream Maps is how they allow you to easily visualize your work, and once it is visualized it is easy to understand and optimize.

If you look at the first current state map, you can easily see how relabeling the boxes to reflect common IT tasks, say in a server build process, makes this a powerful tool for IT. Replace the box names with another process – maybe code build, testing, and release – and you see once again how Value Stream Mapping is a key tool in fixing our broken IT.

Now that we’ve established a method for the optimization of our IT processes, let’s go back to thinking about Cloud and the debates around Iaas, PaaS, and the PaaS vendors. Take the second Value Stream Map. Say this diagram more accurately reflected server builds and the time it took to install an OS was one hour. We optimize this process through our IaaS based Cloud, public or private, and get the time down to 5 minutes. That is awesome, we’ve saved 55 minutes and really optimized that process. Go team!

If “premature optimization is the root of all evil”, then local optimization is the Devil’s half brother. In the above example we saved 55 minutes, but the total time of work flowing through the system is still 67 days, 23 hours. And that is where we come back to Cloud. IaaS is a local optimization. It is great, it is awesome, but it is a very small piece of the puzzle. PaaS is another local optimization, but instead of optimizing one process it optimizes three or four. Which is great, but many IT organizations are going to “adopt Cloud for business agility and speed, then be sadly surprised when their local optimization does little to fix their screwed up system. Cloud can be a great enabler, but it is only a small piece of the larger system. It is high time more of us focus on the larger system.

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