'NoOps' debate grows heated

High-profile IT executives from Netflix and Etsy are arguing about the roles of operations staff through their blogs

The dust-up over the term "NoOps" escalated this week, with high-profile IT executives from Netflix and Etsy issuing dueling blog posts about the evolution of IT organizations.

The debate often has been heated, which some experts say may reflect the reactions of people whose jobs are threatened by a shift in the way IT groups work.

In his blog post, Adrian Cockcroft, director of cloud systems architecture for Netflix, described his IT organization as having little need for operations staff, partly because the company has shifted to the cloud, where it can automate many former functions of the staff.

"The developers used to spend hours a week in meetings with Ops discussing what they needed, figuring out capacity forecasts and writing tickets to request changes for the data center. Now they spend seconds doing it themselves in the cloud," he wrote.

Since this marks a shift in the way IT organizations have been run, it warrants a new term, he said: NoOps.

Cockcroft is a proponent of the concept and the term, and he wrote the post following "sometimes heated discussion on Twitter about the term NoOps," he said.

In a blog post written in response to Cockcroft's, John Allspaw, vice president of technical operations for Etsy, took issue with the term NoOps and suggested that Netflix has made its organizational changes because it implemented its operations function badly.

"I'm going to attempt below to illustrate what you describe as the 'Ops' in your term 'NoOps' is what most of us in the community describe as Doing It Wrong," Allspaw wrote, including the symbol for a trademarked phrase after "Doing It Wrong."

At Etsy, developers make production changes themselves and deploy their own code, which gives them an "operability mindset" and makes them accountable for their own code, he said. But Etsy also has operations people who do some of the same work as developers but are responsible for infrastructure buildout and management. "Etsy has an Operations org, people with 'Operations' in their title, and yet don't have a culture of red tape like you describe," he wrote.

Netflix has an organization it calls the cloud operations reliability engineering team, which handles around-the-clock system administration work but is largely removed from the work the developers do. In that sense, the team is different from a traditional operations staff, according to Cockcroft.

Cockcroft is "saying that they've automated it so much and made it such a streamlined process that nobody has to touch anything that has to do with operations. Developers just do things and all the operations takes care of itself," said Geva Perry, a consultant who also runs the "Thinking Out Cloud" blog.

For an organization of its size, Netflix is very advanced, Perry said. "For an operation of that size to be running the way they're running, it is very, very cutting edge," he said.

Perry said that Google may have a similarly streamlined and automated process but he would be hard-pressed to name another company that would.

A big reason for the uproar around the NoOps concept is simply its name. "The language has such unfortunate connotations," said Gene Kim, former CTO and founder of Tripwire, and author of an upcoming book called "The DevOps Cookbook."

"I don't know why they choose NoOps. It's so inflammatory." There has already been a "decades long" war between developers and operations people and the term only exacerbates that, he said.

In addition, the concept of NoOps clearly means that fewer operations people are needed. Cockcroft said most of Netflix's original IT operations team left and were replaced by a smaller team.

"Ops guys are insulted and actually threatened economically if people make the claim you don't need ops people any more," Perry said.

However, the shift opens up some new opportunities for operations experts. People with operations experience have the opportunity to take on the role of operations architect, where they can focus on things such as getting operational requirements into the code and using the systems to better survive outages, Kim said. Operations people no longer have to do the repetitive manual work but instead can focus on bigger-picture architectural design, he said.

Perry agreed. "The quantity of ops people is going down already, but their importance and role in the organization will become very strategic," he said. With automation, fewer people are needed to deploy code, but the requirement for planning and architecting systems becomes more important, he said.

"Underlying all of this is that we are going through tremendous changes in the industry and there are all these new things happening that don't have names yet," Perry said.

He also pointed out that vendors are starting to jump on the NoOps concept. Platform-as-a-service provider AppFog, for example, argues that the emergence of PaaS offerings eliminates the need for most operations organizations, thus enabling a NoOps organization. It designed an infographic plotting out the evolution of IT organizations, which was published on GigaOm earlier this year.

Nancy Gohring covers mobile phones and cloud computing for The IDG News Service. Follow Nancy on Twitter at @idgnancy. Nancy's e-mail address is Nancy_Gohring@idg.com

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