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What is an agile data center organization? - About the new novel "The Phoenix Project"

Times are not easy for data center managers. The clients have strong opinions about pricing, cycle time, and quality of the services. At the same time they struggle to keep good team members, to tame their budgets, and to keep pace with technological progress. "The Phoenix Project", a new novel by Gene Kim and his colleagues, offers some solutions. (Es gibt eine deutsche Version dieses Artikels).

Many companies have their own data center, or they work closely together with a specific IT service provider. IT can be an important eye-level partner for companies. The IT guys know the systems well and as a client you can be sure where your data is. Often the IT service provider has one or more departments that develop or customize software.

But, how do we manage such a data center well, i.e. offering sufficient quality for a good price? Most clients say that frameworks like ITIL are too complex. After all, small companies must think carefully about how much overhead is acceptable.

Before jumping into details of concepts like Change Management or IT pricing, I prefer to present the Phoenix Project. This novel written by Gene Kim, Kevin Behr and George Spafford recounts the daily catastrophes in the data center of the fictive car part manufacturer, "Parts Unlimited."

Book cover (courtesy by IT Revolution Press)

In the book, Bill Palmer takes over the job as VP of IT operations. In the first half of the book, one catastrophe after another beleagers Bill and his team:
  • An important software project (Phoenix) should be finished on a certain date. But the project management team does not respect available resources. The inevitable finally happens.
  • IT specialists are needed everywhere. But, there is no one available.
  • Their big systems have become a zoo, incurring a lot of technical debt.
  • Auditors are urging the IT department to fix security issues.
  • The company is examining closely the possibility of selling the IT department to an IT service provider.
  • An important member of Bill's staff is a bottleneck who hinders progress on many issues.
  • And, of course, the different departments make trouble for each other.
  • Moreover, the CEO has no more money or resources.
From my experience, the scenes ring true as day. The authors describe the characters realistically. As a reader, I'd really like to jump down the CEO's throat and shoot: "If everything is that important, then kindly give them money, you ...."

But, this won't work anymore. The CEO has no money left. Nevertheless, the construction sites are real problems and must be fixed somehow.

Bill Palmer's usual way of working won't help any more. If the system is broken, more work won't help. A potential member of the Board plays the role of the guru. He makes Bill think about how the work is organized. The second part of the book shows how Bill and his team incrementally re-organize all important processes.

The authors are known among the IT crowd. For years they have worked relentlessly toward an agile concept for data center operations called Dev2Ops (or DevOps). The Phoenix Project exemplifies it in a lively, story form. Well done, I think. John Willis has summarized DevOps movement well (/2/).

How do Bill and his team solve all these problem. Here are some points:
  • Instead of looking at IT problems, they try to see the business problems. Some IT problems become therefore less relevant and others can be solved in a different way and without IT.
  • They try to see the whole system. It's not about how IT operations brings new software into production. It's about how development and operation can work together in order to deploy software that IT operations can manage well. This is where the name Dev2Ops comes from, from development to operations.
  • They look for bottlenecks in the processes and they optimize in front of the bottleneck. We know this already from the Theory of Constraints in production environments (/3/).
The novel was an entertaining read for me. The different parts of DevOps are not presented in details. But that's fitting for a novel (/4/). The print edition runs about 350 pages. The e-book costs about 10 USD at Amazon.com.

(The Teamworkblog is written in German and this is the first post in English language. English-speaking readers might use Google Translate for the other posts.)




  1. James Urquhart has added a good reading list at gigaom: http://gigaom.com/2013/04/21/great-devops-anti-fragility-and-complexity-resources/


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