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DevOps vs. Agile | Understanding the Differences

Emily Arnott

Curious about the differences between DevOps vs. Agile development methodologies? We'll explore and compare both approaches. What are the key differences between DevOps vs. Agile?

Agile and DevOps are methodologies that share the goal of producing software quickly. In DevOps, Development and Operations work together closely throughout the software development lifecycle process.  Agile is an iterative approach that focuses on deploying  releases rapidly with small teams.

What is DevOps?

DevOps is a practice that helps development and operations teams align on goals and processes. Rather than developers “throwing code over the wall” for operations to deploy and run, the two teams work together throughout the entire lifecycle of the code.

The term DevOps was coined in 2009 by Patrick Debois, known as the “Godfather of DevOps”. The invention of the term reflected a growing movement in de-siloing development and operations, emerging through concepts like ITIL and service lifecycles. Interestingly, the concept of SRE (Site Reliability Engineering) preceded DevOps (circa 2003 from Google) although DevOps has been adopted more widely.

What is Agile?

Agile is a set of principles that accelerates development by forming and connecting small self-regulating teams. It advocates for ad-hoc decision making oriented on specific problems. Plans are not set in stone, but evolve in response to setbacks and opportunities.

Agile development was popularized after the release of The Manifesto for Agile Software Development, written by a team of advocating developers. Other practices for achieving the same goals of efficiency and adaptability had existed before, such as Scrum or Rapid Application Development.

Comparing Agile and DevOps

Agile and DevOps are not mutually exclusive ideas. You can implement Agile practices within the framework of DevOps. DevOps is more focused on making sure large teams are aligned on long term goals, whereas Agile focuses on small teams completing immediate tasks. After establishing a development cycle with DevOps, you can use Agile tools like stand ups and sprints to achieve each stage.

However, there are differences in their goals, methods, and cultures that can cause difficulties when implementing both. Let’s break down these differences and how each can help in different areas of your system.

Overlapping goals of Agile and DevOps

Ultimately, DevOps and Agile want the same thing: increasing the frequency and reliability of releases. Their approach to achieve this overlaps in several ways:

  • Structuring teams to more effectively communicate
  • Setting up plans that are adaptable when circumstances change
  • Advocating for continuous release cycles instead of infrequent major deploys
  • Passing knowledge from operations into future development projects
  • Judging success and iterating based on frequency of successful releases

However, their methodologies also differ in major ways, which we’ll explore below.

DevOps teams vs Agile teams

DevOps seeks to unify the development and operations teams, creating a space for each to communicate their needs and challenges. This results in a large unified team with a wide range of skill sets represented. Developers and operators still focus on their original tasks, but now work more harmoniously together.

Organizations may also build a specific DevOps team to support this relationship. This team would be in charge of managing policies and procedures and ensuring best practices are followed. In general, teams in the DevOps model are built to provide an enduring improvement to the development lifecycle.

Agile teams, on the other hand, are very small and built ad-hoc for each project. Their goal is to assemble the people who will complete the project the fastest. Representation from other areas of the organization is likely unnecessary. More important is making sure each team member is capable of moving the project forward. Everyone on the team should fully understand the goals of the project. This minimizes roadblocks and accelerates development.

Agile teams are independent and can deal directly with changing project and client requirements. Each Agile team’s goals and responsibilities are set forth by the larger teams, but then they work on their own to achieve it, even as plans change. On the other hand, DevOps teams’ relationships with stakeholders are usually formalized. There will be layers of planning between a change in requirements and the developers themselves.

Despite these differences, you can use both DevOps and Agile team structures. You can establish links between development and operations and build a DevOps team to facilitate them. Then, for each smaller project, you can assemble an Agile team. It would still fall under the umbrella of your larger DevOps structure, but could operate quickly and independently.

DevOps procedure vs Agile procedure

To help build an enduring improvement to the development lifecycle, DevOps advocates creating policies, documentation, and procedures to help future projects. These are designed to be flexible, with room for exceptions and adjustments as need arises. However, they are invested in as a foundation for implementing DevOps.

Agile doesn’t make this investment in procedure. Three of the four primary principles of The Manifesto for Agile Software Development reflect this prioritization:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

That isn’t to say that Agile doesn’t have its own set of recommended procedures. It’s just that these procedures can be universally applied to any Agile implementation, rather than Agile recommending that procedures be created specifically for your organization. Popular Agile procedures include:

  • Daily stand ups - Agile teams may have a quick meeting every morning to report on progress on the project. This helps proactively identify and clear roadblocks and prevent redundant work.
  • Sprints - projects can be broken down into smaller milestones called sprints. Each sprint has some clearly defined tasks and a deadline in which to complete them. Teams collaborate to set the goals of each sprint and review their success after.
  • Story points - Agile teams can use systems like story points to collaboratively estimate how long tasks will take. These points systems are based not just on the amount of work, but how uncertain the requirements are, potential roadblocks, and anything else that could delay the completion of the task.
  • Pair programming - when it comes to actually writing code, Agile suggests techniques like pair programming. This involves two engineers working together, one writing code and the other reviewing each line as it’s written. This has been shown to boost productivity and reduce bugs in many cases.
  • Scrum - several Agile practices are combined in a methodology known as Scrum. This dictates the structure of teams completing sprints. It also provides policies for how to review sprints later and improve the system.

These and other Agile tools can be applied to any project without much customization. Having these procedures at the ready helps Agile accelerate development. On the other hand, investing in highly customized relationships and policies through DevOps can pay off in future projects.

DevOps and Agile also vary in other areas of procedure:

  • Automation - DevOps focuses on automating procedures wherever possible, whereas Agile only automates where it would help with the current sprint
  • Deployment - DevOps advocates for continuous deployment, making small incremental changes as frequently as possible. Agile makes deployments on the rate of completing sprints, with each one representing some complete project or feature
  • Testing - DevOps has procedures built into its lifecycle to catch bugs in development and minimize their impact in production. Agile focuses instead on robust development to reduce the number of bugs with techniques such as pair programming

DevOps philosophy and culture vs Agile philosophy and culture

Although they share many goals, the philosophies of DevOps and Agile vary. Here are some of the major contrasts between their viewpoints:

  • DevOps advocates totally silo-less, integrated teams for the entire service, whereas Agile advocates standalone teams for each project
  • DevOps advocates building up libraries of documentation and proactive guides to procedure, whereas Agile advocates reacting to changes with the skills of the team and foregoing most documentation
  • DevOps advocates for team members to be specialized in different areas of the development and operations lifecycle, whereas Agile advocates every team member to have all the skills needed for the project
  • DevOps focuses on goals of building an enduring solution, evaluated based on how well policies continue to work on future projects, whereas Agile focuses on completing projects as efficiently as possible, evaluated based on the rate of successfully finishing sprints
  • DevOps focuses on building code that is reliable in production, involving operations in every stage of development, whereas Agile produces the required code as efficiently as possible, assuming that operations will be able to handle it

These may seem like impossible conflicts in attitude, but it is possible to adhere to both sets. It’s mainly a question of scale. DevOps ideas can inform how to manage large, multi-sprint projects, and Agile can handle each sprint itself. Operations would work with development at the outset of the large projects, and then remain more hands off during the development itself. DevOps teams can support each sprint with documentation to build an enduring solution.

When to use DevOps or Agile (or both!)

We’ve shown that DevOps and Agile can be compatible in practice and philosophy. You will likely end up using aspects of both in your organization. However, there will be times where you have to emphasize one mentality over the other. Here are some examples:

Whether your shop focuses on Agile or DevOps, you can bet on one thing: you will run into incidents. Handle them better and learn more from them with Blameless! Find out how by checking out a demo.

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