A DevOps for websites, but the tools let it down – The New Stack

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WebOps is a portmanteau of “web” and “operations” and, at first glance, seems like a close cousin to DevOps. As the name suggests, WebOps focuses on the deployment and operation of websites and web applications. The term has been around since at least 2006, when its Wikipedia article was first published (indeed, this page is older than the DevOps Wikipedia article, which was first published in 2010). Yet when I searched my Twitter timeline, there was no mention of “WebOps” from the people I’ve been following since 2020.

So what’s going on here? Is WebOps a real trend or not? To find out, I spoke to Josh Koenig, co-founder and chief strategy officer at Pantheon, a company that has appropriated “WebOps” for its marketing efforts. The term is listed multiple times on Pantheon’s homepage, its definition article currently ranks number 1 in a Google search, and it also dominates Twitter search results.

SaaS for content management

Pantheon is a website management company that was founded in 2010. It started out as a “software as a service” for managing Drupal websites. When it launched to the public in September 2011, it was described by TechCrunch as “a Heroku for Drupal sites in that it puts the web development environment in the cloud”. Pantheon eventually expanded to offer a cloud service for WordPress websites as well.

“We’re still the same core product, the same core value proposition, today as we were then — we call it a website operating platform,” Koenig told me. “You can think of WebOps [as] applying all the proven lessons of DevOps and modern software development, to the rather tricky use case of the web. Ironically, DevOps grew out of the experience of early large-scale web practitioners, but is often not used for websites.

The main difference between DevOps and WebOps is that the latter involves content management, which usually means marketing managers are part of the process. It happens to be something I have a lot of experience with, although I’ve never used the word “WebOps”. I told Koenig that I was a “Web Manager” in the early years of the 2000s, and at that time companies did not know if they should place me in the IT department or in the marketing department (for the record, I ended up in marketing, but hung out with the IT team during breaks and lunchtimes!).

Compare WebOps to DevOps

Like DevOps, WebOps enables things like version control and CI/CD (continuous integration and delivery or deployment). But, Koenig said, he applies it “to the narrower technological space of the web […] with a deeper set of stakeholders. Thus, WebOps includes web designers and content creators in its workflows.

From an IT perspective, how is WebOps typically managed? According to Koenig, it depends on the relationship between the IT and marketing departments.

In some cases, he said, the marketing department “assigns a budget to pay developers who are technically into IT, but dedicated to the technology needs of marketing.” But in other cases, he’s seen “really strong core IT organizations” where IT takes the lead – and in those cases they tend to use their existing DevOps team and practices.

In DevOps, CI/CD is a common part of the workflow. I asked if this is also the case with WebOps, and if so, how does CI/CD work in the web context?

For static sites, Koenig answered, testing is done during construction (usually after content has been updated). “The hardest case is where people have content management,” he said, “so you have living software running your website live, and it’s connected to a database, it has binary assets, images, PDFs, what have you, so you have people using it in production to release new content [but] you also want to be able to make design changes and add functionality. »

The CI/CD workflow that Pantheon has developed to handle this, Koenig continued, allows companies to “synchronize the current state of live content with a pre-production application environment, and ensure that all aspects of these two environments are the same”.

It doesn’t sound that different from what enterprise content management systems have always done. In the early 2000s, I used a rather large CMS from Interwoven called TeamSite, which did pretty much what Koenig described (kept development and production environments separate and in sync). And that was many years before the term CI/CD was coined. So in some ways, it feels like WebOps is just a buzzword for a long-familiar process in website content management.

The Riddle of the Headless CMS

What has definitely changed over the past two decades is the complexity of the process of building and deploying modern websites. Current trends such as Jamstack and “Headless CMS” empower IT teams, but at the cost of increased complexity. A headless CMS, for example, is when the presentation and publishing aspects (the frontend, or “head”) are handled outside of the CMS. A headless CMS is often used by the marketing team to input their content, while presentation and publishing are handled separately by the WebOps team.

It turns out that Koenig has some opinions on the state of the headless CMS. In a recent Forbes article, titled “What I Was Wrong About The Headless CMS”, Koenig wrote that while he helped popularize the headless CMS trend, he (and the industry) too focused on the backend and not the frontend. I think what he meant was that headless CMS products have a reputation for having poor user interfaces, whereas modern web apps like Google Docs are easier to use and have better functionality. So, ironically, headless CMS products have made the user experience (the frontend) worse for content creators.

That aside, Koenig told me that the headless CMS trend has “made the need for WebOps in many cases much clearer, because there’s orchestration involved.” In other words, there are at least “two separate pieces of software that need to be integrated – a frontend and a backend”. That’s where Pantheon and its WebOps approach comes in, he said, because it provides a structured workflow and more automation.

Conclusion

I am convinced that the DevOps approach has many potential benefits for web content management, especially on the back-end for IT. But after talking to Koenig, I realized that there are many different ways to implement this approach for websites. So, I still don’t know what exactly WebOps is. The process between IT and marketing seems to be largely dependent on the CMS tool being used.

Speaking of which, I would argue that content management tools have over-complicated things in recent years – headless CMSs in particular not doing a good enough job on the frontend. Developers and ops managers might have it easier with decoupled systems (Jamstack or Headless CMS), but poor old marketers struggle. Whatever WebOps is, it needs to do a better job for end users.

Main image via Shutterstock.

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