What Is GitOps? Learn About Benefits, Challenges, and More

GitOps: the philosophy that deployments, changes, and more should be as simple as making a commit to Git. Learn all about GitOps - and how Harness can help.

Published on
4/28/22

In this article, we will cover what GitOps is, what benefits an organization gains from GitOps, and how to scale GitOps for the enterprise.

At Harness, we offer GitOps-as-a-Service, built on the popular Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF)-incubated open source Argo CD project. Harness GitOps-as-a-Service not only delivers the lightning fast deployments and lightweight operation that developers love, but it does so with enterprise-grade security and governance at scale. 

If you want to see Harness GitOps-as-a-Service in Action, request a demo

What Is GitOps? How does GitOps work?

GitOps is an approach for companies looking to simplify deployments of cloud-native applications. Whether it’s adding a firewall rule, defining a VPC, or fixing a UI bug, all of it should come from the central plane of source control. Below we detail the principles that make a GitOps workflow enticing for developers and their teams that are looking to deliver software in a faster, more reliable manner. 

GitOps Principles

The Entire System is Described Declaratively

GitOps focuses on the what instead of the how. Kubernetes is the most popular platform at the moment where all application components are descriptions, not directions on how to accomplish building them out. In the declarative paradigm, a developer describes their desired state, and the system they are interacting with determines when, how, and where to place applications in a way that meets the requirements described.

The key benefits of declarative infrastructure and declarative configuration are they allow software development teams to focus on their application first, not the logistics of deployment and runtimes. 

The State of the System Lives in Version Control

In GitOps, the Git repository serves as the authority on the desired state of the application. Every change or rollback is funneled through Git pull requests, Git reverts, and actions oriented around the version control system. 

Automatically Apply Approved Changes

Within GitOps, the process to apply changes is driven entirely from the Git repository with a pull request or merge request. After working on a feature branch, a developer submits a pull request, any applicable GitOps Continuous Integration pipelines run, and the change is merged once the required process is fully satisfied. On merge, with the main branch as the source of truth, the deployment process is run by the GitOps operator in the deployed infrastructure, with no additional steps required post-merge.

Drift Consolidation

Much of the interest around GitOps has been on the push-based side of development. As a change is made, it is applied to the cluster, and regardless of the mechanics of how this is accomplished, it centers around changes being deployed by developers. The other half of GitOps is the pull action, where an application is self-healing, correcting itself to align with the desired state. 

Kubernetes-based infrastructure already restarts failed application instances (pods) and aligns with a desired state. GitOps extends this principle to every aspect of the application. When a misalignment is spotted from the application side in configuration, images deployed, etc., the GitOps operator treats source control as the final authority and aligns the running state to the state in Git.

Why GitOps?

Life Before GitOps

In the not too distant past, the author of this article owned deployments for an ecommerce application. The process involved a deployment pipeline, but also many manual processes, and requests to various internal service providers. Every six weeks, new changes were deployed, concluding a process that spanned months when you include the software development process. Something as simple as a few application code changes, or modifications to configuration files, were a large production. At the first sign of trouble, it was a requirement to roll back and conduct another six week test cycle. 

That six-week run-up consisted of deploying, testing, and retesting in each pre-production environment. If a change required firewall updates, additional server resources, or anything outside of the scope of deploying the codebase, that required a minimum two week leadup for each environment—often longer. No change could be initiated for production prior to testing in every lower environment, and infrastructure changes across multiple environments could not be completed in a single six-week cycle. 

This isn’t an unusual story; it’s actually very common. Companies are implementing GitOps because of all these problems. The pace of change slows to a crawl because of fragile, unrepeatable, non-scalable approaches to software development and deployments. The benefits can be seen in the GitOps model below. 

Benefits of the GitOps Approach

GitOps approach diagram

Single Source of Truth

Anyone who has had to onboard into an engineering organization is likely very familiar with the  headache of dealing with multiple authoritative systems. One system for firewalls, another system for DNS, a few more systems for provisioning compute infrastructure if you’re on-prem, as well as in the cloud, a version control system, and finally, a CI/CD pipeline tool. Unless your organization has an exceptional cultural commitment to documenting everything, it’s as much of a full time job to know where to find the answer as it is to parse it. 

One GitOps definition is that GitOps allows developers to have their version control system as the authoritative source to look for answers about every configuration they care about. The benefits of this starts with streamlining onboarding, providing an enhanced developer experience, all the way up to avoiding the dreaded “context switching” that cuts into productive time. 

Version Control

The changes made to every aspect of the application live in one place, and are versioned as each change is proposed by pull requests and implemented. With everything in code, any change can be reviewed and there is a full paper trail, and the ability to roll back changes.

Democratizing Infrastructure Management

Historically, every system has a different set of gatekeepers. Network teams, security teams, ops teams, and more. In the pre-GitOps world, achieving Continuous Deployment automation was at the mercy of at least a half dozen different groups—and whatever red tape they put up.  Any update required a long request process to the owner of a given system, with carefully documented changes.

Developers provisioning cloud resources was the first major deviation from how companies manage infrastructure. Then came infrastructure as code, and ultimately, the GitOps pipeline, to close the loop from idea to implementation.

Standardizing/Ease of Use/Simplifying

Part of the reason for change management and gatekeeping has been to assure that what ends up in a production environment maps to lower environments. With many layers of applications, configurations, and infrastructure, standing up a new environment has often been a combination of checking many sources of truth, change tickets, and ultimately trial and error.

With all infrastructure, configuration, and code defined in a Git repository (or VC of choice), the ability to build out a new environment or port configurations across environments isn’t a multi-sprint project.

Velocity

Organizations are increasingly standardizing on metrics to measure the effectiveness of software delivery, with the DORA metrics being the most popular. A key metric measured is lead time, or in practical terms, how long it takes from a code commit to that change arriving in production. The GitOps automation approach shortens the Continuous Delivery cycle time to the minimum required to push new changes and features. GitOps continuous delivery processes can reduce the amount of time needed to get new code to production.

Shorter Feedback Loop

Velocity provides two benefits in one. Getting features to your end users faster is valuable in and of itself. Then, add on top the quick feedback on changes development teams get. It’s not uncommon that the time from pull request to user feedback is expressed in months. Revisiting, refining, and pushing changes long after a development team has moved onto another project is more time-consuming and less efficient, especially when there are multiple iterations.

Harness GitOps-as-a-Service

At Harness, we’ve witnessed a large number of challenges as we’ve worked with our customers to implement GitOps principles at scale. 

Promoting Releases Across Environments

Describing the desired state between test, QA, and production environments becomes increasingly difficult. As of this writing, practitioners are split among a few possible solutions, including using one branch per environment.

This introduces a litany of potential issues, not the least of which is code not being properly merged into all branches in the correct order. Go ahead and do the math on how many repositories you end up having across many environments and applications in that operating model. 

Without a clear solution for this problem organizations either won’t adopt, will adopt for select environments, or will disparate practices that become a form of technical debt.

GitOps Architecture

Harness chose Argo CD for GitOps adoption as it provided the ability to use an “app of apps” pattern, resolving at least a portion of handling this issue at scale to manage infrastructure. When there’s no longer a single Kubernetes cluster to manage – but instead an increasing amount of them as more teams implement GitOps workflows – issues scaling across an organization intensify. With a parent app in play, cascading changes across multiple applications becomes less of a barrier to entry and assists with cluster management.

GitOps-as-a-Service further solves this issue by offering pull request pipelines. The addition of pull request pipelines makes it easy to propagate changes across multiple services and environments without having to individually manage each deployment by adding a layer of pipeline orchestration on top of standard GitOps deployments.

Auditing

With GitOps, the Git log provides a definitive record of all changes. However, as an audit trail, it can become a burden to search for changes and tie them directly to business or regulatory implications. Within Git, all commits are recorded, but the implication of each commit takes time and effort to unearth — especially for non-technical audiences. An audit trail only goes so far without additional functionality to ease sorting through large numbers of pull requests or merge requests.

GitOps with Harness provides a full audit log of all the deployments and changes, tracked to allow operational and business level analysis, without requiring digging through Git commits. Searching through Git pull requests and files down to the code level is still an option on the table, but it is no longer the required starting point.

GitOps Covers One Part of the SDLC

A well understood limitation of the GitOps approach by itself is, there are many portions of the software development life cycle not covered, as it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution or magic bullet. Compiling code, running unit testing, integration testing, security scanning, and more require more tooling and processes to support the Continuous Deployment model of GitOps.

The Harness platform provides built-in GitOps as part of a holistic solution covering everything in the Continuous Integration and Continuous Deployment life cycle. A distinction is necessary here as GitOps follows an idea of pushing everything live immediately.   In addition to GitOps capabilities, Harness provides a full delivery pipeline around your process including approvals, controlled feature releases, canary/blue/green rollout strategies, and Continuous Verification.

Scaling Up

With many applications and environments comes a set of challenges with scale. With the number of Git repositories skyrocketing, it quickly becomes hard to track environments and configurations. Centralizing versus true autonomy quickly becomes a real problem in that applying company-wide changes or policy becomes a burden when giving teams autonomy, contrasted with the tradeoffs of centralizing configurations and creating a large bottleneck. With the race for talent on and the necessity of a developer-centric experience, setting up GitOps at scale can become a liability.

With GitOps as a very developer-centric, decentralized approach to software delivery, the burden on DevOps teams is to provide the necessary tools without everything turning into the wild west. As with the benefits of a platform providing for other parts of the SDLC, Harness also provides a centralized pane of glass for managing GitOps while providing the needed autonomy to development teams. 

Several key challenges the platform looks to solve are providing project-level spaces, robust role-based access control (RBAC), and Policy as Code powered by OPA. Combining the ability to segment spaces, provide proper access, and finally govern by way of policy described as code allows DevOps teams to fully control day-to-day operations without being overly hands-on or prescriptive in how teams build their software.

Adopting GitOps

Looking to adopt GitOps in your organization and want to learn more? Check out our webinar to dive deeper into GitOps, how to adopt, potential pitfalls, and how to extend GitOps to the next level.

Wherever you are on your GitOps journey, from exploration to seasoned professional, we hope this was helpful for you. If you’d like to see GitOps in action with Harness, come talk to us and we’ll share our thoughts on opportunities with GitOps, as well as how we’re tackling the challenges.

Request your demo today!

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