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ChatOps tools the new interface of IT operations

Chatrooms and chatbots are making inroads into enterprise IT shops to manage day-to-day operations.

The chatroom has evolved well beyond the old days of teeny-boppers sharing their age and location on AOL.

In 2016, chatrooms and chatbots provide a virtual workspace for IT operations teams doing serious work -- in some cases, serving as the main conduit of communication when incidents must be resolved and executing crucial commands that move applications along the DevOps pipeline.

Three major groups of chat utilities, known as ChatOps tools, underpin the virtual workspace. First, there is usually a notification system, offered by vendors such as PagerDuty Inc. and VictorOps Inc., which allows virtual teams to come together in case of emergency or significant events. Second, there are chatbots, which can be plugged in to the ChatOps system in order to execute commands received in a chatroom. Options include open source projects, such as Qbots and Hubots. Connecting both of these is a third group of chatroom tools, such as Slack, Atlassian HipChat and CA Flowdock.

ChatOps takes hold from the startup to the enterprise

For startup cloud communications platform maker Twilio Inc., products such as PagerDuty have long helped to scale operations and make DevOps teams more flexible in how they respond to incidents.

We don't have a data center, we don't have an office -- we're all just kind of scattered about ... This is our way of going into that community office.
Chris Moyervice president of technology, ACI Information Group

With hundreds of microservices to manage by several small autonomous teams that are distributed globally, PagerDuty's ability to absorb changing notification routes as teams rotate on-call duties was key to dividing and delegating responsibilities as the company grew, said Bruce Wong, research and development leader at the San Francisco-based company, which has used PagerDuty for over a year.

ChatOps tools also are becoming systems of record for IT operations in mainstream organizations, particularly in distributed workforces.

"We don't have a data center, we don't have an office -- we're all just kind of scattered about" as a virtual workforce, said Chris Moyer, vice president of technology with ACI Information Group, a web content aggregator based in New York, and a TechTarget contributor

"This is our way of going into that community office."

Security and assigning proper authorizations can be a challenge in the early days of setting up a ChatOps environment, according to Jason Hand, DevOps evangelist with VictorOps, based in Boulder, Colo., and author of the book ChatOps for Dummies.

"Obviously, you don't want just anybody to go in and run commands," Hand said. Most organizations first dip a toe in the waters of ChatOps by pulling in read-only monitoring information before getting into chatbot commands.

Benefits beyond shared communications

Despite security challenges, ChatOps can shore up security and regulatory compliance by providing a live or historical log of all activities in the environment.

"Accountability is baked in, and commands are logged in the context of the conversation," Hand said.

At companies such as SimpliSafe Inc., a security system supplier in Boston, ChatOps serves as a canonical historical record of communications and replaces ephemeral tribal knowledge within the organization with something organized and searchable.

"It really helps to have a record of these technical conversations, because there's vital information to the corporation that otherwise gets lost in the ether," said Barton Nicholls, DevOps engineer at SimpliSafe.

Tools such as Slack also offer a way to track changes and calls to a company's API for an application, which provides an audit trail of changes to the environment, as well as a way to quickly see which changes were most recently made and roll them back if something goes wrong.

ChatOps tools also provide an environment where engineers with less experience can watch more senior colleagues work, and thus serve as an informal training tool for IT, said Elliot Murphy, CEO of Kindly Ops LLC, a managed DevOps service based in Portland, Maine.

"People with different levels of permissions can still be in the same room and see one another take action -- it's a great way to train people, who can see the conversations and process as it happens," Murphy said.

Eventually, organizations such as Concur Technologies Inc., an expense management software-as-a-service provider based in Bellevue, Wash., will move beyond shared communications and begin to use ChatOps tools to monitor and maintain parts of the environment automatically.

"When we update a static website, we want to clear a cache, and that's a command that can be issued from Slack," said Dale Ragan, senior software engineer for the company.

Beth Pariseau is senior news writer for TechTarget's Data Center and Virtualization Media Group. Write to her at bpariseau@techtarget.com or follow @PariseauTT on Twitter.

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