The Emergence of UI and UX in DevOps Tools

Most of the popular DevOps tools on the market such as Puppet, Chef and Jenkins, are open-source and require a high level of proficiency. With the complexity comes the challenge of learning new frameworks and paradigms, a benefit to those who want to challenge themselves and learn new skills.

But while these tools have become widely adopted, the widespread adoption of DevOps is creating a need for interfaces that cater to all users, from the most technical engineers to those who don’t want to learn, don’t see the value in learning or don’t need some of the top-end power that a complex scripting interface provides.

It is for this reason that CloudBees developed Blue Ocean, a new interface for its continuous delivery tooling, and Red Hat released a user interface (UI) for Ansible.

The Right Time for UI?

Why have there not been UIs before now?

I would say two reasons:

  1. Users did not demand nor care for one until now. A UI in many circles is seen to been more presciptive/restrictive of what can be achieved, and that only scripting/programming interfaces expose the real power to an engineer. Also, many of the most progressive engineers like scripting; they derive satisfaction from learning new skills, especially those that are the most highly desirable/in demand. And, I think many engineers like things because they are difficult to do; it’s a challenge, they have bragging rights and means they likely are getting paid more/are in demand.
  2. The open-source community is not as good at or geared toward building UIs.

Why has a UI become important now?

At MidVision, like many of the other commercial automation tool vendors, we have always believed that user experience and accessibility is critical, so we have provided command-line, scripted, API and GUI interfaces to our tooling. But this has not been the common approach.

What makes this moment different is the wider adoption of DevOps automation tooling by groups that want at least graphical user interfaces (GUIs) and improvements to user experience such that you don’t need to be super-technical to be able to use them.

The main groups we see are:

  • Business users within an organization. Continuous delivery/release automation tooling very much promotes collaboration, interaction and self-service, allowing release managers to see the status or pipelines, approve releases or initiate deployments. Managers may want to see dashboards and metric, produce reports or usage data. Other less technical staff, offshore teams, second level support, etc., may want to be able to provision, clone environments or deploy changes.
    There is a gap between the nerds in the basement speaking one language – and the business users who speak another which accessibility, UI and UX hopes to bridge.
  • Operations. There are certain parts of IT Operations that have welcomed the technical script-based tooling with open arms—it was a natural evolution for a UNIX system admin to become a DevOps/automation engineer. They can still script in shell (or are they meant to be doing it all in Python? ;-). Again, some of the security tooling, storage, etc., are generally more comfortable down in the weeds. As you move up the stack however, toward the business application deployments, users are much more familiar and comfortable with UIs. Also, at this level dashboard, metrics, access control and reporting are much more important—and all of which are very hard to achieve without a proper UI.
  • Wider industry adoption. Adoption of the tools and techniques that are often advocated in the DevOps world started with the same poster child companies—Netflix, Twitter, Facebook, Google—and other newer companies that are cloud-native, have an open-source-first policy and are unencumbered by heritage technology stacks.

We have then seen parts of enterprises adopt DevOps practices and tooling. Obviously, it is important to start small, establish value and then scale—running an initiative like you would a startup within an enterprise works well.

Now that there is a compelling body of evidence to suggest that DevOps practices provide competitive advantage, cost savings, improved time to market, etc., other industries that are heavily dependent on technology have not had yet adopted these practices for varying reasons. Some parts of the finance and healthcare industries are two such areas. These industries have concerns around security and stability that may have slowed their adoption to date.

Overall, however, this wider adoption means we need to cater not just for the new breed of DevOps engineers that are both system administrators and programmers and can script in Shell, Rudy and Python. We also need to cater to a wider group that either don’t have the skills to use these tools or don’t care for them.

What change, then, are we likely to see?

I believe DevOps tooling will evolve to provide new interfaces to cater to business users and self-service, and to make it easier to achieve the same thing without needing years of experience using a tool before being considered a competent user.

I would compare many of the current tools today to a map and compass. Lovers of orienteering or mountaineering may suggest using a GPS or map on a mobile phone is cheating, cannot be relied upon or won’t provide the same same information as the contours on a 1 to 10,000 map. Or maybe you prefer vinyl to Spotify.

Neither of these things are wrong; they are just not the only right. If you want to nerd out with your map and compass, vinyl LPs and Python scripts, I say fill your boots. All of which, BTW, I have some passion for! However, if you also want to get in your car, enter a zip code and know that it will get you there (accepting there is maybe a route that is slightly quicker if only you had done your research more thoroughly), this makes perfect sense to me.

User experience is at the heart of the most of the other products we choose to consume, and I think many new and existing users will be pleased with UX becoming more important as tools like ours and others put this at the forefront of their design.