Root for All - A DevOps Measure?

Who has root access in your IT organizations? Do you "do" DevOps? Even though getting root access was once my personal motivation for pushing DevOps, I never considered the question of the relationship till it was triggered by my last conference visit.

Last week I attended the 10. Secure Linux Administration Conference - a small but cherished German event catering to Linux admins - and there where two DevOps talks: DevOps in der Praxis (Practical DevOps) by Matthias Klein and my own DevOps for Everybody talk. I found it very interesting that we both talked about DevOps from a "been there, done it" perspective, although with a very different message.

DevOps ≠ DevOps

For me DevOps is most of all a story of Dev and Ops being equal, sitting in the same boat and working together on shared automation to tackle all problems. My favourite image replaces humans as gateway to the servers with tooling that all humans use to collaboratively deliver changes to the servers. In my world the question of root access is not one of Dev or Ops but one of areas of responsibility without discrimination.

For Matthias DevOps is much more about getting Dev and Ops to work together on the system landscape and on bigger changes, about learning to use really useful tools from the other (e.g. continuous delivery) and about developing a common understanding of the platform that both feel responsible for.

We both agree in general on the cultural aspects of DevOps: it is not a tool you can buy but rather the way of putting the emphasize on people, how they work together with respect and trust and setting the project/product/company before personal interests and ascribing success or failure to a team and not individuals.

Demystifying Root Access

So why is root access such a big deal? It only lets you do anything on a server. Anything means not only doing your regular job but also means all sorts of blunders or even mischief. I suspect that the main reason for organisations to restrict root access is the question of trust. Whom to trust to not mess things up or whom to trust to not do bad things?

So root access is considered a risk and one of the most simple risk avoidance strategies is limiting the amount of people with root access. If a company would be able to blindly trust all its employees with root access without significantly increasing the overall risk, then this might not be such a big topic.

Interestingly root access to servers is handled differently than database access with credentials that can read, write and delete any database entry. I find this very surprising as in most cases a problem with the master database has a much bigger impact than a problem with a server.

Root = Trust

If root access is a question of trust then that gives us the direct connection to DevOps. DevOps is all about people working together and sharing responsibilities. It is therefore most of all about building up trust between all people involved and between the organisation and the teams.

The other question is, do we place more trust into our people or into the automation we build? Traditional trust models are entirely people based. DevOps thinking strongly advocates building up automation that takes over the tedious and the risky tasks. 

If there is a lot of trust then the question of root access becomes meaningless. In an ideal DevOps world all the people only work on the automation that runs the environment. The few manual interactions that are still required can be handled by everyone on the team.

As both trusting people and building trustworthy automation leads to a situation where it is acceptable to grant root access to everyone, you can actually use root access as a simple and clear measurement for your organisation's progress on the DevOps journey.

Current Status

To find out the current status I did a small poll on Twitter:

As I did not ask about the status of DevOps adoption we cannot correlate the answers. What I do interpret from the result is that there is enough difference in root access in different companies to try to learn something from that. And I am very happy to see that 34% of answers give broad root access.

Embrace the Challenge

You will hear a lot of worries or meet the belief that in your organisation giving root to everybody is impossible, e.g. due to regulatory requirements. These are valid fears and one should take them serious. However, the solution is not to stop automating but rather to incorporate the requirements into the automation and make it so good that it can also solve those challenges.

The question of root access is still very provocative. Use that fact to start the discussion that will lead to real DevOps-style automation, build a dash board to show root access as a KPI and start to build the trust and the automation that you need to give root access to everyone.

I'll be happy if you share your own example for the DevOps - root correlation (or the opposite) in the comments.

Update: Slides from my microxchg 2018 talk:, video:


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