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Application release automation tools bring new skills to a DevOps team

Once a staid standby, software release management tools -- renamed and retooled -- are coming to a DevOps organization near you. Here's what you need to know.

In the way that everything old -- or oldish -- is eventually new again, take the case of the relatively long-lived,...

and somewhat lowly, software release management market. Thanks to a strong interest in DevOps, software release management tools have been polished, primed and even renamed -- they're application release automation tools today. And the category is now even worthy of its own -- first-ever -- Magic Quadrant report from market research firm Gartner.

This market "has been reinvigorated by the need for increased communication among the various parts of the DevOps team," explained Colin Fletcher, research director at Gartner and co-author of the report. "Application release automation has people coordination and communication. Now, we're thinking about software release in a whole different kind of way."

According to the just-released Magic Quadrant for Application Release Automation (ARA), the market for modern software release management tools is expected to grow rapidly: By 2020, half of large companies around the world should be using an ARA tool, up from just 10% today. Last year, the ARA market was worth nearly $220 million, Gartner estimated.

Gartner named 13 companies in the Magic Quadrant, and the three main criteria for products were automation, environment modeling and release coordination -- all of which are critical in a DevOps environment, Fletcher said. There's a sudden sweet spot in this market, he explained, because all the stakeholders need to know what's going on when software is released.

So, today's application release automation tools have expanded what used to be very basic functionality. Most support containers, and all assume "a diverse group of users and skill sets," Fletcher said. "Today, many tools provide programmatic types of interfaces, and, yet, in the same tool, you can flip a switch and get a fully functional graphical user experience."

The improved feature set is key, but what's almost as important is the fact that ARA tools are going to bring everyone to the table to talk about how software is actually released, Fletcher said. By doing that, companies are going to be forced to really be honest with how every little thing is done.

"The classic result of any automation project is that there is a lot of discovery involved," he said. "People have to open up some old wounds, rip off [bandages] of all the different steps. In even one app release process, you're going to find a lot of skeletons in the closet, manual things that are not done in the most optimal way. In some cases, ARA tools are going to be a fresh opportunity to rethink how you're looking at everything you're doing."

Going forward, Fletcher predicted  application release automation applications are going to continue to expand to give organizations an even broader view into the software development process. In particular, release management teams and function and change management teams are going to need to work more closely together, "and ARA tools can take a more prominent role" in making that happen, Fletcher said. "Right now, we're focused on the bits and pieces and the engine, but the next stage [is] tools that will allow us to bring the people together, too."

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