Introduction

The term ‘ChatOps’ was first coined by Github to describe how their internal teams used a bot called Hubot to handle DevOps. Since then, ChatOps has been practically (and successfully) adopted by numerous organizations as an additional enabler to the DevOps framework.

ChatOps is a conceptualized collaboration model that embeds DevOps processes and tools within an organization’s communication channels to aid transparency and workflow automation. In essence, ChatOps formulates a communication-driven environment that connects people, tools, and processes to achieve an automated workflow—thereby promoting efficiency, especially in a distributed team structure.

The fundamental aspect of ChatOps relies solely on effective communication. More importantly, through its framework, the communication is not only limited to human-to-human but enables a human-to-machine interaction too.

In this article, we will explore :

  1. ChatOps and its benefits
  2. Elements of a ChatOps Framework and how they work together
  3. Key aspects of integrating a ChatOps framework to a workflow
  4. Important considerations before adopting ChatOps

Why ChatOps?

The development process is iterative, with changes happening at every given moment. These changes are often worked upon by a distributed team structure, and organizations need a way to track those changes effectively. Traditionally, teammates would repeatedly switch between various development tools and channels of communication to know who did what, and why. ChatOps make this easier by bringing in the tools, processes, notifications, and automation together through the communication channel where workers communicate. As a result, team members can receive real-time updates of the development process through in-chat notifications.

Additionally with ChatOps, organizations can configure scripts that allow team members to execute commands easily through chat messages to perform recurring monitoring and maintenance tasks. The development team can also deploy code all within the chat interface.

When operational incidents such as server downtime occur, it takes a longer time to detect, isolate, diagnose, and fix the underlying problem. More often, such Incident tickets require a number of teams to identify the root cause. This constant switching between the server, the knowledge repository,  as well as the back and forth communication between teammates can make the Incident resolution a slow process. Add to this a scenario where a team member might notice a situation that would require some fix usually done by a colleague but is not in the capacity to perform that fix because of the lack of that specific domain knowledge. Valuable time that could be used to fix the problem is expended trying to reach out to that colleague to inform him of the issue. To help with this, ChatOps forms a single seamless channel that connects related team members with the required tools and resources to aid quick Incident response.

In addition to the automation of processes that happens, the ChatOps model aids transparency and accountability in teams by providing a central knowledgebase where authorized teammates can access information about who did what and why. It reduces the concentration of domain knowledge in one person or group of people because the chat environment holds the entire knowledgebase of operations. It can also serve as a knowledgebase for training new hires. New hires can type a command that lists all the options available in the chat and get informed instantly on what they can do and how to get started.

Elements of a ChatOps Framework

A ChatOps model consists of three major elements in itself.

Chat Application

The first component of a ChatOps model is the Communication channel, also referred as the Chat Application. At its core, a chat application is a group chat tool acting as the user interface that integrates further with the chatbot for message relay.

Some popular instant messaging tools for team collaboration are Slack, HipChat and Microsoft Teams that enable organizations to get started with ChatOps almost instantly. Both these tools share comparable features and have marketplaces replete with third-party tools for easy integration and custom requirements.

Operational Tools

Operational Tools of an organization form the second element of ChatOps. These tools are usually part of the overall tech stack, and are shared among teams for daily operations such as version control, knowledge management, incident management, change management, etc. Such tools may include :

As part of ChatOps, such tools integrate with chat workspaces to provide needed knowledge within a domain. For instance, a user can refer a ServiceNow Incident ticket and initiate a discussion on Incident Response and Resolution for faster collaboration.

Chatbots

A Chatbot forms the most crucial element of ChatOps that sits in between the Chat Application and Operational Tools. These bots send/receive messages through the Chat Application while integrating with Operation Tools for knowledge referral. They are configurable to facilitate and decipher human-to-human, human-to-machine, and machine-to-human level communication, which takes collaboration within an organization to the next level. Through custom scripts, Chatbots can also accept commands from a chatroom and execute them on an Operational Tool. These commands are supported by custom-configured scripts that even perform functions such as deploying code to the servers, monitoring infrastructure resources, or raising incident tickets.

Benefits of Adopting ChatOps

Here are a few benefits of adopting the ChatOps model:

  1. Enhanced visibility, transparency, and accountability across teams. Group level visibility to see who is doing what, what led to an action, and how they are doing it.
  2. Enables streamlined adoption of the DevOps model by enhancing team collaboration.
  3. Drives organizational efficiency through identification and automation of repetitive, error-prone tasks.
  4. Increases operational efficiency by prioritizing Incident Response, Change Approval and Problem Resolution.
  5. Develops a scalable model for efficient collaboration that can be applied for smaller teams and can be scaled to meet increasing demands.

How to Integrate ChatOps into Your Organization’s Workflow

Though different organizations might have different requirements and workflow types, implementing a ChatOps model follows a common approach.

Choosing a Chat Messaging Tool

The first step is to choose a chat-based messaging tool for internal communications if you do not already have one. Teams should visualize what they think the potential applications of the ChatOps model will be and then come up with a decision on which tool to use.

There are certain features and points to note when choosing the right chat application. The first is to factor in the requirement of having native applications across devices. You may essentially look for a tool which can be used across desktop or handheld devices, and works even over a public network. This aspect should also consider security as one of the key criteria to ensure the application does not expose security attacks. On top of allowing interoperability to users, the application should also provide ease of integrating third-party operational tools into the chat interface - without which a ChatOps model can hardly be achieved.

Integrating Tools within the ChatOps Workflow

The next step is to integrate your operational tools into the chosen chat workspace. Integrating such tools is particularly the most important step in achieving a ChatOps model. This essentially allows users to access tools and knowledge bases from their chat interface without the need to independently access those tools for performing specific operations. For instance, a developer might be able to see all forks and pull requests of his code’s Github repo. Without leaving the chat interface, he can then approve the pull requests or get on a chat with the requestor for clarifications.

While this provides great advantages to an extended team working on a number of tools and environments, this can also turn out to be a nightmare if not managed well. An organization should be well aware about the ramifications of including too many tools and KBs within a ChatOps workflow. Not only can this lead to security incidents, but can also cause system outages in case of insufficient backend resources unavailability. For every tool integrated within the ChatOps workflow, the organization should also assess roles and access privileges to counter vector attacks.

Chatbot Integrations

Once the above two integrations are analysed and planned, you can proceed to integrate Chatbots for custom tasks not provided by these integrations. More often though, Chatbots come bundled with modern Chat Applications. Chatbot integrations are however, one step ahead of integrating operational tools; and are fundamentally used for complex use-cases that are not provided by the Chat Application. Integrating a chatbot usually requires writing programs or using pre-written scripts that allows you to interact further with Operational Tools. As these are written in different programming languages, it is not only important to consider whether the bot allows custom scripting, but also to factor in development efforts to obtain a specific custom feature.

When implementing a ChatOps model, it is always recommended to start small and scale in phases. It is also advised to try not to reinvent the wheel as much as possible. As it defeats the whole purpose of ChatOps, which is efficiency in development and operations. Instead, use already made plugins and tweak them to serve your purpose. You may also want to use Chatbots scripts written in a language similar to that your team uses in their everyday work to reduce the overall effort in implementation.

Points to Note Before Adopting ChatOps

Though benefits of ChatOps are a dime a dozen, a thorough due-diligence before adopting the model should be strictly followed. We can break it down to the two most important considerations:

  1. With ChatOps, the whole model may initially become overwhelming when there is information overload in the systems from various services and commands. This is particularly true when the underlying infrastructure isn’t capable enough to handle a sudden spike in information flow. To resolve this, organizations should gradually deploy it for specific services, and then scale it further.  Doing so not only helps mitigate risks without affecting the entire workflow, but also supports team members to adapt and build relevant knowledge bases gradually.
  2. Besides, organizations should note that ChatOps is a model to improve operational efficiency. As a result, they should be wary of the efforts required to build and maintain the model. If they spend considerable time, effort, and money on building/acquiring these tools, the whole idea of implementing the ChatOps model is defeated. As a best practice, organizations should diligently identify a cost-benefit analysis to determine if its adoption model is worth it.

Conclusion

While the ChatOps model continues to evolve, there are several successful use-cases of how it can benefit an organization’s goal to elemental automation. By bringing people, tools, and processes to a single platform, ChatOps facilitates a communication-driven development. Deploy workflows, execute commands, or communicate with team-members - Chatbots are here to help. It is, however, equally important to consider the right tools and factor the effort required to configure the model based on an organization’s specific requirements.

To help with this, Amixr provides a developer friendly Alert Management system that enables a ChatOps model to your workflow easily and seamlessly. With Amixr, you can  implement SRE best practices, while integrating with popular Chatbots for custom alert rendering to ensure alerts are never missed. For more details on Amixr and its features, visit here.