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Specialized chatbot technology aids DevOps through standardization

With development, operations, support and lifecycle management tools on the rise, uniting them into a single, consistent, simple user interface is a wish that's finally come true.

Chatbot technology is already the next big thing. Familiar to us mostly through the broad-based, consumer-oriented verbal interfaces of Apple's Siri, Microsoft's Cortana and Amazon's Alexa, along with text-based counterparts for session-oriented, web-based customer support, none address the special demands of IT and DevOps.

As developers pull together information from disparate development, testing, implementation, operations and knowledgebase platforms, they must wrestle with vastly different interfaces for each. Wouldn't it be nice if all that information could be accessed through a single, consistent interface, regardless of source?

Designed to bring together the vastly different interfaces of dozens of development and operations tools, a growing use of specialized chatbot technology is for streamlining the workflow of DevOps personnel through integration and consistency. It's a challenge that has become the mission of xMatters, a San Ramon, Calif., provider of DevOps contextualization communications.

Connecting insights

"XMatters is an intelligent communications platform that connects insights from any system to accelerate essential business processes," said Abbas Haider Ali, xMatters' CTO. "This comes into play as developers and operations personnel deal with open platforms and APIs that bring lots of disparate information from multiple sources into a common console."

Whether it is pushing code into a test or production environment, keeping track of API call response times, monitoring application performance, examining the results of a security test or dozens of other metrics used within the confines of IT, the challenge, Ali said, is that developers and operations both have to deal with a multitude of different tool interfaces that present their metrics in vastly different ways.

The xMatters chatbot technology engine pulls together these disparate jigsaw pieces and assembles them for presentation -- and query -- through a single chat interface in a fully consistent manner. "The previous approach to this problem was dashboards, but they are inefficient, difficult to code and are not as friendly as chat," Ali said.

Furthermore, dashboards configured to satisfy one person's preferences may be wrong for another developer doing the same job. But making the underlying information available through query-based chat satisfies all the developers working on the same project, he said.

Satellite DevOps

ViaSat Inc., a Carlsbad, Calif., satellite communications services company, turned to xMatters throughout the process of gearing up its own DevOps group.

The company's Exede residential internet service, currently serving 700,000 customers through the ViaSat-1 satellite, is about to get much bigger, according to Chris Crocco, ViaSat's network solutions engineer. In the second quarter of 2017, ViaSat is slated to launch ViaSat-2, which will increase the company's worldwide footprint sevenfold, covering North and Central America, the Caribbean and the north Atlantic.

"This is requiring a radical change in how we deploy and support our services," Crocco said. "We are moving to a DevOps model where development teams building and deploying services will also be responsible for maintaining and supporting them." Previously, tasks were assigned to ViaSat's operations group.

Users extract only the information they need and see it presented in a consistent manner.
Chris Crocconetwork solutions engineer, ViaSat

To ensure that employees are working in sync, ViaSat turned to chatbot technology and now has 310 xMatters users across DevOps, app development, and network and systems engineering.

The xMatters engine integrates information from the large array of informational sources the company operates. These include HipChat for ChatOps, Jira for supporting Scrum and Agile teams, event management in Salesforce, and monitoring and alerting through Splunk, Tivoli, Sensu and ElasticSearch. More integrations are planned throughout 2017, including WebEx for meetings, Cisco for voice over IP conferencing and Five9 for customer support.

Also in the planning stage are implementations of automated services for problems facing the company's network, including auto-remediation, reporting and alerting. These will leverage Splunk for operational intelligence, Grafana for metrics dashboards and several internally developed proprietary aids.

ViaSat is using the xMatters integration builder to configure conduits for the wide variety of information sources. "Our DevOps teams create targeted communications that go directly to team members," Crocco said. "Users extract only the information they need and see it presented in a consistent manner."

It's a good use of chatbot technology, according to Michael Facemire, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research. "Developers in an IT department are going to have a better understanding of how to interact with this technology than consumers," he said.

Joel Shore is news writer for TechTarget's Business Applications and Architecture Media Group. Write to him at [email protected] or follow @JshoreTT on Twitter.

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