May 26 2021

DevOps vs. Agile Development: What Methodology Is Right For You?

At a high level, DevOps and agile development focus on solving very similar problems — but the devil (and the potential) is in the details.

For business leaders looking to get a handle on the technical processes that drive their organization, collaboration is key.

That collaboration can take many forms, and for the uninitiated, approaches such as DevOps or agile development can be hard to grasp at a high level — and they may seem like the same thing.

But while they may do similar things, agile and DevOps have some notable differences, and their greatest power may emerge when they come together in one cultural piece.

What Is Agile Development?

First codified during a 2001 meeting at a ski resort in Utah, agile development is an approach built around a philosophy that emphasizes collaborative responses and quick change. The Agile Manifesto that came out of that meeting broke down the importance of a customer-driven approach to development that favors the individual over process.

“We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it,” the manifesto begins.

Since that point, agile development has exploded into a full-on discipline that’s widely used throughout the business world. According to one 2019 study, 97 percent of organizations use agile in some way, shape or form, but there is room for further uptake, as 48 percent of respondents say that less than half of their teams are agile.

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While there were elements that predated the formalizing of a modern development processes, says Tara Hernandez, a senior engineering manager at Google, many of the concepts of DevOps later evolved through agile development’s encouragement of faster development cycles and close collaboration.

“As far as starting to formalize the discussion, the Agile Manifesto talked a lot about the 12 principles, earlier time-to-market and more interaction with customers,” she says, encapsulating the approach as: “What are the things that make your organization engage?”

The Key Principles of the Agile Manifesto

The Agile Manifesto’s 12 principles, as described by the Agile Alliance, include:

  • Customer satisfaction: The highest priority of an agile development approach is to satisfy customers through continuous delivery of software.
  • Frequent release cycles: Agile development relies on release cycles of a few weeks to a few months.
  • Close collaboration: Business staff should work closely with developers on the project.
  • Sustainable development: The approach should allow for a constant pace that can continue indefinitely.

There are different types of agile development — most notably, scrum, a sprint-driven approach that is most common among agile proponents — but ultimately, the goals of agile development focus on continuous software development that considers the needs of the consumer and can adapt to changes as they happen.

READ MORE: Learn more about DevOps and how it can work for your organization.

What Is DevOps?

Often described in the same breath as agile development, DevOps is a similar method that leans on improving processes so things get done faster.

DevOps, which was formalized around 2009 but whose roots date back years earlier, refers to a merger between development and IT operations that applies continuous integration methodologies to traditional infrastructure development.

While not limited to settings such as the cloud and the server room, DevOps is often associated with those technologies. A good example of this in action is DevSecOps, which extends the approach specifically to security needs so that response time is minimized and vulnerabilities are quickly detected.

How Does Agile Development Differ from DevOps?

DevOps, in many ways, is a maturation of the agile development approach, as both represent a reaction to the separated-out waterfall style of development. One term used in reference to both disciplines is the idea of “shifting left,” in which practices associated with later parts of a waterfall process are considered much earlier in an agile or DevOps process.

But in many ways, DevOps moves faster and has a different target audience. As a blog post from the tech education platform Guru99 notes, there are significant differences in scale, audience and the way that teams are structured. Agile development tends to enable problem-solving within smaller teams, while DevOps by nature tends to work across departments to help solve larger goals quickly.

Basically, DevOps “brings two large siloed teams together to allow for quicker software releases while Agile is focused on getting smaller teams to collaborate with each other so it can react quickly to the ever-changing consumer needs,” wrote Kaya Ismail in a 2018 comparison of the technologies for CMS Wire.

The role of interaction also differs in each approach: For example, DevOps leans heavily on process automation using tools such as Infrastructure as Code, while agile focuses on a collaborative approach to problem-solving.

How Can Agile and DevOps Be Used Together?

Despite differences between the two methodologies, a general understanding of the role of each can help pinpoint compatibility between the processes. With individual teams taking an agile development approach within a broader DevOps culture, the processes can be combined in a way that’s very complementary.

A guide on the subject from Microsoft Azure puts it like this:

You do not need to choose between DevOps or agile — instead, you can make use of both methodologies. Agile is strong on methods to organize work, such as through Scrum or Kanban, and DevOps drives a broader culture of getting software delivered faster and more reliably.

LISTEN: Explore DevOps further by listening to the Simplifying DevOps podcast.

In many ways, there is a lot of compatibility in how agile development and DevOps work that makes them very complementary. Hernandez notes that the evolution of DevOps formalized many of the ideas of agile, and as a result, both work at a cultural level, rather than as purely technical approaches.

“The key thing is, what do you need to do, both from a cultural standpoint and a technology standpoint, to enable fast, high-quality velocity of delivery? And it has to be cultural, because technology all by itself — no matter what some vendors will tell you — never solves these types of problems,” she says.

How Can Organizations Implement an Agile Approach to DevOps?

Ultimately, agile and DevOps can work well together, but there must be an understanding of the relationship between speed and quality, Hernandez says, noting that this may be different for every organization.

“Really understand what problem you are trying to solve, then tailor your efforts to that problem,” she says. “Otherwise, you're likely not going to get what you want.”

Working with a strong partner, such as CDW Amplified™ Services, can help get you there. Only your organization will know what the perfect balance is between your agile teams and a DevOps-friendly culture, but having a helping hand to do the cultural work can maximize your technical capabilities.

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