Scotty Isn’t DevOps

I was listening to the most recent episode of our Gestalt IT On-Presmise IT Roundtable where Stephen Foskett mentioned one of our first episodes where we discussed whether or not DevOps was a disaster, or as I put it a “dumpster fire”. Take a listen here:

Around 13 minutes in, I have an exchange with Nigel Poulton where I mention that the ultimate operations guy is Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott of the USS Enterprise. Nigel countered that Scotty was the epitome of the DevOps mentality because his crazy ideas are what kept the Enterprise going. In this post, I hope to show that not only was Scott not a DevOps person, he should be considered the antithesis of DevOps.

Engineering As Operations

In the fictional biography of Mr. Scott, all he ever wanted to do was be an engineer. He begrudging took promotions but found ways to get back to the engine room on the Enterprise. He liked working starships. He hated building them. His time working on the transwarp drive of the USS Excelsior proved that in the third Star Trek film.

Scotty wasn’t developing new ideas to implement on the Enterprise. He didn’t spend his time figuring out how to make the warp engines run at increased efficiency. He didn’t experiment with the shields or the phasers. Most of his “miraculous” moments didn’t come from deploying new features to the Enterprise. Instead, they were the fruits of his ability to streamline operations to combat unforeseen circumstances.

In The Apple, Scott was forced to figure out a way to get the antimatter system back online after it was drained by an unseen force. Everything he did in the episode was focused on restoring functions to the Enterprise. This wasn’t the result of a failed upgrade or a continuous deployment scenario. The operation of his ship was impacted. In Is There No Truth In Beauty, Mr. Scott even challenges the designer of the Enterprise’s engines that he can’t handle them as well as Scotty. Mr. Scott was boasting that he was better at operations than a developer. Plain and simple.

In the first Star Trek movie, Admiral Kirk is pushing Scotty to get the Enterprise ready to depart in hours after an eighteen month refit. Scotty keeps pushing back that they need more time to work out the new systems and go on a shakedown cruise. Does that sound like a person that wants to do CI/CD to a starship? Or does it sound more like the caution of an operations person wanting to make sure patches are deployed in a controlled way? Every time someone in the series or movies suggested doing major upgrades or redesigns to the Enteprise, Scotty always warned against doing it in the field unless absolutely necessary.

Montgomery Scott isn’t the King of DevOps. He’s a poster child for simple operations. Keep the systems running. Deal with problems as they arise. Make changes only if necessary. And don’t monkey with the systems! These are the tried-and-true refrains of a person that knows that his expertise isn’t in building things but in making them run.

Engineering as DevOps

That’s not to say that Star Trek doesn’t have DevOps engineers. The Enterprise-D had two of the best examples of DevOps that I’ve ever seen – Geordi LaForge and Data. These two operations officers spent most of their time trying new things with the Enterprise. And more than a few crises arose because of their development aspirations.

LaForge and Data were constantly experimenting on the Enterprise in an attempt to make it run better. Given that the mission of the Enterprise-D did not have the same five-year limit as the original, they were expected to keep the technology on the Enterprise more current in space. However, their experiments often led to problems. Destabilizing the warp core, causing shield harmonics failures, and even infecting the Enterprise’s computer with viruses were somewhat commonplace during Geordi’s tenure as Chief Engineer.

Commander Data was also rather fond of finding out about new technology that was being developed and trying to integrate it into the Enterprise’s systems. Many times, he mentioned finding out about something being developed the the Daystrom Institute and wanting to see if it would work for them. Which leads me to think that the Daystrom Institute is the Star Trek version of Stack Overflow – copy some things you think will make everything better and hope it doesn’t blow up because you didn’t understand it.

Even if it was a plot convenience device, it felt like the Enterprise was often caught in the middle of applying a patch or an upgrade right when the action started. An exploding star or an enemy vessel always waited until just the right moment to put the Enterprise in harm’s way. Even Starfleet seemed to decide the Enterprise was the only vessel that could help after the DevOps team took the warp core offline to make it run 0.1% faster.

Perhaps instead of pushing forward with an aggressive DevOps mentality for the flagship of the Federation, Geordi and Data would have done better to take lessons from Mr. Scott and wait for appropriate windows to make changes and upgrades and quite tinkering with their ship so often that it felt like it was being held together by duct tape and hope.


Tom’s Take

Despite being fictional characters, Scotty, Geordi, and Data all represent different aspects of the technology we look at today. Scotty is the tried-and-true operations person. Geordi and Data are leading the charge to keep the technology fresh. Each of them has their strong points, but it’s hard to overlook Scotty as being a bastion of simple operations mentalities. Even when they all met together in Relics, Scotty was thinking more about making things work and less on making them fast or pretty or efficient. I think the push to the DevOps mentality would do well to take a seat and listen to the venerable chief engineer of the original Enterprise.

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SDN Myths Revisited

techunplugged-logo

I had a great time at TECHunplugged a couple of weeks ago. I learned a lot about emerging topics in technology, including a great talk about the death of disk from Chris Mellor of the Register. All in all, it was a great event. Even with a presentation from the token (ring) networking guy:

I had a great time talking about SDN myths and truths and doing some investigation behind the scenes. What we see and hear about SDN is only a small part of what people think about it.

SDN Myths

Myths emerge because people can’t understand or won’t understand something. Myths perpetuate because they are larger than life. Lumberjacks and blue oxen clearing forests. Cowboys roping tornadoes. That kind of thing. With technology, those myths exist because people don’t want to believe reality.

SDN is going to take the jobs of people that can’t face the reality that technology changes rapidly. There is a segment of the tech worker populace that just moves from new job to new job doing the same old things. We leave technology behind all the time without a care in the world. But we worry when people can’t work on that technology.

I want you to put your hands on a floppy disk. Go on, I’ll wait. Not so easy, is it? Removable disk technology is on the way out the door. Not just magnetic disk either. I had a hard time finding a CD-ROM drive the other day to read an old disc with some pictures. I’ve taken to downloading digital copies of films because my kids don’t like operating a DVD player any longer. We don’t mourn the passing of disks, we celebrate it.

Look at COBOL. It’s a venerable programming language that still runs a large percentage of insurance agency computer systems. It’s safe to say that the amount of money it would cost to migrate away from COBOL to something relatively modern would be in the millions, if not billions, of dollars. Much easier to take a green programmer and teach them an all-but-dead language and pay them several thousand dollars to maintain this out-of-date system.

It’s like the old story of buggy whip manufacturers. There’s still a market for them out there. Not as big as it was before the introduction of the automobile. But it’s there. You probably can’t break into that market and you had better be very good (or really cheap) at making them if you want to get a job doing it. The job that a new technology replaced is still available for those that need that technology to work. But most of the rest of society has moved on and the old technology fills a niche roll.

SDN Truths

I wasn’t kidding when I said that Gartner not having an SDN quadrant was the smartest thing they ever did (aside from the shot at stretched layer 2 DCI). I say this because it will finally force customers to stop asking for a magic bullet SDN solution and it will force traditional networking vendors to stop packaging a bunch of crap and selling it as a magic bullet.

When SDN becomes a part of the entire solution and not some mystical hammer that fixes all the nails in your environment, then the real transformation can happen. Then people that are obstructing real change can be marginalized and removed. And the technology can be the driver for advancement instead of someone coming down the hall complaining about things not working.

We spend so much time reacting to problems that we forgot how to solve them for good. We’re not being malicious. We just can’t get past the triage. That’s the heart of the fire fighter problem. Ivan wrote a great response to my fire fighter post and his points were spot on. Especially the ones about people standing in the way, whether it be through outright obstruction or by taking power away to affect real change. We can’t hold networking people responsible for the architecture and simultaneously keep them from solving the root issues. That’s the ham-handed kind of organizational roadblock that needs to change to move networking forward.


Tom’s Take

Talks like this don’t happen over night. They take careful planning and thought, followed by panic when you realize your 45-minute talk is actually 20-minutes. So you cut out the boring stuff and get right to the meat of the issue. In this case, that meat is the continued misperception of SDN no matter how much education we throw at the networking community. We’re not going to end up jobless programmers being lied to by silver-tongued marketing wonks. But we are going to have to face the need for organization change and process reevaluation on a scale that will take months, if not years, to implement correctly. And then do it all over again as technology evolves to fit the new mold we created when we broke the old one.

I would rather see the easy money flee to a new startup slot machine and all of the fair weather professionals move on to a new career in whatever is the hot new thing. That means those of us left behind in the newly-transformed traditional networking space will be grizzled veterans willing to learn and implement the changes we need to make to stop being blamed for the problems of IT and be a model for how it should be run. That’s a future to look forward to.