A conflict is swirling about the world of IT operations, generally known more for staid processes than strife. On one side are software developers fed up with stodgy responsiveness and a just-say-no attitude still common among some system administrators. On the other side are sysadmins who have embraced DevOps, agile processes, and the notion that IT can be a strategic advantage rather than a stubborn roadblock when it comes to releasing and managing code.

“I think this is going to be one of the most interesting dynamics in IT to watch over the next five or 10 years,” says Luke Kanies, CEO of Portland, Ore.-based Puppet Labs, which provides open-source tools to automate server management with basic scripts.

Kanies founded Puppet in 2005, an era where he said the biggest challenge in IT operations world was “getting bits on disk” in an efficient, consistent fashion. The stereotype, one that he hoped to retire, was the overwhelmed sysadmin remoting into individual machines via SSH to push patches, updates and new programs, quickly becoming overwhelmed about which machine had which configuration. Today, he said, getting bits on disk is easy. What’s hard is keeping up with an accelerated schedule of deploying new code quickly and with a high degree of confidence to vast numbers of in-house and cloud-based servers.

“Most of what comes up falls into the bucket of release management,” said Kanies, interviewed recently in Puppet’s new warehouse-style offices in Portland’s posh Pearl District.

Consider the case of Zynga, a Puppet customer, which a few years ago claimed to be adding 1,000 servers a week to keep up with the demands of its social gaming customers. Before trying out Puppet, Zynga used a manual process that included Kickstart configuration files and post installs to update its servers, which included tens of thousands of Linux machines in public clouds and private data centers. This is a release-management challenge, and indeed a basic business model, that would have been inconceivable a few years ago, he said.

Surely Puppet is benefitting from the rise of virtualization and Software-as-a-Service business models. The company, which earlier received funding from Cisco, Google Ventures and Kleiner Perkins, made news in January when it announced a US$30 million investment from VMware, whose fortunes have soared in the age of SaaS. In July, Puppet used part of its war chest to buy Cloudsmith, which offers tools such as an Eclipse plug-in that make it easier for developers to use Puppet’s software.

Kanies, however, was quick with a reality check when it comes to SaaS and cloud services. Industries, including finance, insurance, healthcare and defense, all have good reasons to be wary of public data centers. Still, even far from FarmVille, he said all sysadmins should be able answer a basic question: Is the set of installed software in the development environment the same as that installed in the production environment?

“Most companies have no idea,” he said.

This unacceptable mystery will continue to push Puppet and DevOps in general to the fore, Kanies said, even if IT operations always lag behind development in terms of tech culture cachet. Not that he was willing to concede the stereotype. Walking through the open high-ceilinged space crammed with workstations, it’s impossible to miss that most of those coding away seem cut from the same cloth as him: 20- or 30-somethings in jeans and tee-shirts and often multiple piercings. (Kanies, duly attired, had several studs in his ear the day of the interview.)

So while the rise of the cloud may create conflict in IT operations, Kanies said it’s a mistake to think of it as a fight between aging neckbearded sysadmins who say no and hip young Ruby on Rails developers who say yes. Rather, it’s a tug of war between those organizations that see sysadmins as central to universal release-management problems, and those that don’t.

“Take your average Google sysadmin and [your] average insurance company Java developer and tell me which one is retrograde,” said Kanies, who added that Puppet has so many employees having babies that the company has developed a standard baby pack for new parents. (The main item: a fifth of whiskey.)