Are IT automation tools your ladder to the cloud?

Automating your data center infrastructure gives you a leg up to cloud. Choosing the wrong automation tool, however, can create unwanted hurdles.

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Modern Infrastructure: The new automation imperative:

The instinct to automate IT is anything but automatic. There's a huge range of approaches and attitudes toward automating data center infrastructure. IT automation tools offer data centers a significant opportunity to not only to build out repeatable cloud environments but to take advantage of cloud's scalability and elasticity.

IT automation

Part one: The new IT automation imperative

Part two: Are IT automation tools your ladder to the cloud?

Enfinitum Consulting, an IT consultancy firm that uses automation to create cloud environments, recently moved a claims-processing application for a large U.S. insurance company from a managed services provider to Amazon Web Services' public cloud, saving the company $750,000 per year.

The savings came in large part from being able to shrink the environment substantially, from 35 servers at the MSP to a base of just 11 servers on AWS, explained Robert Green, principal cloud strategist at Enfinitum. That environment is then auto-scaled up in response to client load using monitoring and orchestration software from ScaleXtreme.

In one test, Green threw 1,000 claims at the system to see how it would respond. "The system started at 11 servers, and we watched it move to 20, then 25, and all the way up to 60," he said. "As claims popped off the stack, the number of servers went all the way back down."

Armed with simple-to-use IT automation tools, a lot more organizations would right-size applications to demand, said Nand Mulchandani, ScaleXtreme co-founder and CEO. For example, now that test and dev environments are increasingly in the public cloud, it behooves users to find ways to automate the tear-down of those environments, he said.

"Before, people didn't turn stuff off, but now that you pay by the hour, you have every incentive to turn it off," Mulchandani said.

A crowded IT automation toolbox

If you find yourself nodding your head at this automation vision, the next question is: How do you get there? What IT automation software do you need?

There are two schools of thought when it comes to IT automation tools: adopt a big automation framework and augment it as needed with point tools, or rely heavily on low-cost/free open source automation tools to cobble together your IT systems.

Glenn O'Donnell, principal analyst at Forrester Research, recommends that organizations align with one of the large automation "anchor vendors." At the same time, it's not possible to standardize completely, in which case, you can augment with niche tools the larger player doesn't meet.  

"Think of it as a shopping mall with a big anchor store and lots of smaller boutiques," O'Donnell said.

Costs, however, may put those products out of reach for a lot of shops, hence the popularity of open source tools like Chef, Puppet, Salt and Ansible, said Michael Coté, research director for infrastructure software at 451 Research.

"With open source, you don't need to spend any money -- if you know what you're doing. That's a lot better than the seven figures you'll spend with BMC," he said.

But low-level tools only go so far, and O'Donnell said that users should expect to see those small companies evolve their products to focus more heavily on process automation -- "where the big guys have dominated."

Meanwhile, large vendors are increasingly opening their environments to support open source tooling. For instance, VMware vCAC handles process orchestration, but turns to Puppet Lab's Puppet to do actual provisioning work, pointed out Coté.

Automation users say to focus on what you've got.

"Our guiding principle is Just Enough Technology, or JET," said the engineering architect at the large financial services organization. "If an open source tool does enough, then we leverage those things. If we already own comparable software, then we use that."

If this approach sounds like it will leave you with a lot of tools, you're right -- but you're not alone.

Ronni Colville, a Gartner vice president and distinguished analyst for IT operations management, said she routinely talks with customers considering nine or more automation tools. "Our prediction is that enterprises will have no less than four separate automation tools in their shop through 2017," she said.

Among automation buffs, there's also a mini-debate raging on which is better: procedural- or model-driven automation.

At a high level, procedural languages like Chef describe how to get to a desired state; model-driven languages like Puppet describe what a desired state should look like. In the words of Puppet Lab's Scott Johnston, "Chef dictates the how; Puppet dictates the what."

The lion's share of legacy scripts are procedural, and thus probably the most familiar. Advocates say they provide the most flexibility, too.

Others argue that a more model-driven approach is easier to maintain. "[Procedural] if-then-else can get very brittle, because there are a lot of downstream changes that you need to make," said Derek Townsend, ServiceMesh vice president of product marketing.

About the author:
Alex Barrett is the editor in chief of Modern Infrastructure.

This was first published in January 2014

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