Embracing DevOps for IT in Higher Education

A DevOps team working together

Everyone wants to be more efficient – colleges and universities are no different. With tightening budgets, increasing competition, and rapidly changing student expectations, achieving efficiency is a common conversation topic in higher education.

DevOps is a philosophy aimed at improving the performance of your IT resources. By unifying IT processes and aligning them with business objectives, organizations are able to respond more quickly while still maintaining a reliable technology offering. This change does not happen overnight, though. With careful planning and competent guidance, institutions can make this worthwhile change and capture real organizational value.

What Is DevOps?

DevOps is a culture and a set of practices, rooted in Agile development principles, that intends to unify software development and system operations to achieve business objectives. These practices seek to reduce the time that it takes to bring an idea from development to actual implementation in a live system.

Following the success of the Agile movement, a new desire arose for organizations to release software and technology systems with increased speed and cadence. Recognizing the stress that this places on their IT teams, a new philosophy was born. Specific tools were invented to automate the highly-technical and error-prone, yet monotonous tasks of software development and deployment. These tools, along with a culture of cooperation between software development, testing, and system operations alleviated the stress of conventional technology management.

In the IT world, there are specific tools and processes that facilitate this new way of working:

  • Infrastructure Automation – describe your application and system configurations as code, using tools like PowerShell DSC, Puppet, and Chef.
  • Continuous Delivery – use automation to build, test, and deploy your applications quickly.
  • Site Reliability Engineering – design your systems with monitoring and orchestration at the core.

In addition to tools and processes, a culture shift is essential to successful DevOps adoption. According to Gartner,

“With respect to culture, DevOps seeks to change the dynamics in which operations and development teams interact. Key to this change are the issues of trust, honesty and responsibility. In essence, the goal is to enable each organization to see the perspective of the other and to modify behavior accordingly, while motivating autonomy.”

By combining modern tools and processes with a culture of coordination and autonomy, organizations can harness the power and efficiency of the DevOps movement.

Organization Impact

DevOps brings with it the promise of alignment of IT resources and business goals, faster time to deployment, and a better ability to respond to changing requirements. These objectives create efficiency in the business that allows the organization to create value for the much more quickly than with previous methods. This value is not only backed by theoretical concepts, but also by industry research and numerous case studies.

Due to the strength of the DevOps strategy, Gartner has identified it as a practice that will continue to grow and become more prevalent among the world’s top organizations. They assert that DevOps will help organizations that are looking to focus on both innovation and ongoing maintenance in their IT environments. They comment that organizations can achieve similar scale-out and economies of scale capabilities of large cloud providers by adopting a culture and mindset like DevOps.

This efficiency is modeled excellently in the case of Etsy, a rapidly-growing billion-dollar online market. Etsy deploys over 30 software innovations every day, due to its culture of continuous improvement and individual empowerment. They embrace the DevOps mindset to create integrated teams that are granted Daniel Pink’s principles of autonomy, mastery, and purpose. These teams take their innovations from idea to implementation, creating more frequent, smaller changes that were far easier to deploy, and easier to fix in case of a problem. This resulted in employees who are less stressed and who are able to keep normal work schedules, instead of staying late for large swaths of “scheduled downtime”.

EDUCAUSE, leading provider of data and analysis of IT in higher education, has also identified DevOps as a significant trend in higher education for 2017 and 2018. In their analysis, they note the benefits of DevOps, including streamlining operations and freeing up resources for other tasks. However, they also note that adoption of DevOps is relatively low among colleges and universities, with only 11% indicating that DevOps is a major influencer or already incorporated into their environment. Clearly, there is room to grow and gain further efficiency from DevOps in higher education.

One school that has benefited from DevOps practices and culture is the University of New Hampshire. UNH embraced the DevOps philosophy and created their own “manifesto” to guide the development of software and systems at the university. Through it, they were able to create cross-functional teams and produce significant gains in short periods of time. They have found it useful in systems from their website to their ERP system and beyond, into the development of APIs for coordination between systems. The DevOps mindset has allowed them to complete projects that would usually span months down to matters of weeks.

Challenges for Higher Education

Higher education traditionally falls into the late majority or laggards of technology adoption. A diversity of stakeholders, including students, faculty, staff, community members, state legislators, and accrediting bodies can all exert an influence that makes it difficult to innovate and make sweeping changes in an institution.

Researchers note that cultural resistance and low levels of adherence to process can significantly reduce the success of DevOps initiatives. This is even more pronounced when the waterfall methodology is prevalent in the organization. The key to culture within DevOps is the ability to change behaviors to become more agile. This outlook has simply not been pursued in traditional IT operations.

The pervasiveness of monolithic systems and waterfall development cycles in higher education can make a switch to DevOps more difficult. Having someone who is familiar with DevOps and modern software development to lead this change can increase the chance of success.

Next Steps

DevOps is not just a tool or a process – it is a change of culture and mindset. This shift can be difficult for a variety of reasons, including the conflicting nature of existing roles and expectations. Finding a way to help teams cooperate and trust each other is a great first step in this direction.

If you’ve read this far, you are well on your way to achieving DevOps in your organization. Continue to learn about the DevOps philosophy, talk about it with your teams, and consult with experts to help with your implementation.

With care and dedication, any organization can achieve the benefits of DevOps.

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