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As DevOps matures, IT ops evolve into an IT service provider

As companies increasingly seek full-stack developers, IT operations specialists must find new ways to add value and remain relevant.

Embracing DevOps doesn't mean handing over operations completely to developers -- IT ops specialists still have key roles to play.

Industry veterans agree IT operations must identify and embrace new ways to add value by becoming internal IT service providers, working in a consultative role with developers, or risk becoming irrelevant.   

While many bleeding-edge companies with a small IT staff are hiring only software engineers, larger organizations will rely upon the IT ops specialty for years to come.

"Some teams that feel that, 'Hey, if we just eliminate ops from the formula, that solves [everything],'  and that's really not the case," said Marc Priolo, configuration manager for Urban Science, a data analysis company specializing in the automotive industry based in Detroit. Far from being eliminated, "ops really needs to get more involved earlier in the process."

While there remains room for the IT ops specialization inside many larger firms, expectations for the role change drastically, requiring a significant shift in mindset for IT ops pros.

Act as an IT service provider

IT pros in DevOps shops say, even where IT operations specializations remain, subspecialties are headed for extinction.

"There's no longer a team that knows just Linux, and there's no longer a team that just knows pushing code to machines, and a team that knows just Java," said Don Luchini, senior software engineer for an energy management software company on the East Coast. "Now, those are expected to be, if not the same team, to at least have enough cross-pollination to know what the other is talking about."

Not everything in the IT operations role can be automated out of existence, according to Luchini, whose career path has traversed release engineering, quality-assurance engineering and software development.

As an example, he described how a very senior software developer was debugging an issue in which a server shut down unexpectedly, without warning from monitoring and logging software tools watching over the environment.

"The first thing I thought of was ... to go look at the server's memory usage," Luchini said. "That's not something your average developer would know to look for," since it's a system-level problem in which a response by the Linux kernel itself, not the code, was the source of failure.

Still, situations where IT operations skills remain relevant are becoming fewer and further between as automation takes hold, Luchini acknowledged.

Therefore, IT ops pros must open the kimono for developers and act in a more consultative role about how software is deployed.

At one major U.S. media company, a development operations team handles the development of deployment pipelines to facilitate deployment of apps onto infrastructure, and they are expected to act as a liasion to development teams and understand the holistic environment, according to Eric Scvimmer, the head of research and development and CTO of consumer media at the company. 

The notion of going to a network group and a sys admin group and working in a Waterfall fashion ... I don't think that's the way the world works now," he said. "What we want to do is work from platforms -- we give developers platforms and say, 'You make use of it.'"

This is also the case at Swisscom, a platform as a service provider in Switzerland in which the infrastructure as a service team acts as an internal IT service provider to developers working on its Application Cloud product.

Maintaining the infrastructure, keeping it up and running, defining the services that you consume from it -- that's the clear role for IT admins.
Stephen Massaltvice president of cloud for Swisscom

"To us, what DevOps means is that operations and development work very closely together and still have different roles, but are way more highly interconnected in the same team," said Stephen Massalt, vice president of cloud for Swisscom. "Maintaining the infrastructure, keeping it up and running, defining the services that you consume from it -- that's the clear role for IT admins."

There will also be a need for IT ops specialists to keep track of the latest technology developments related to infrastructure, noted Chris Lawther, data architect for a Fortune 50 company based in the Northeast.

"Open source has just exploded in the last five years, and we're not going to have solutions for clicking a button and spinning up the newest open source software package right away," Lawther said. "If you're not working in a standard or historically proven technology stack, I think that ops will play more importantly then."

This story is part two of a two-part series on the DevOps transition. Read part one here.

Beth Pariseau is senior news writer for TechTarget's Data Center and Virtualization Media Group. Write to her at [email protected] or follow @PariseauTT on Twitter.

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