Automating data center processes may sound like a cure-all for the recession-fueled manpower gap in today's IT departments, but that isn't always the case, according to IT experts.
Sometimes companies find that, perhaps due to recession-era budgetary constraints, they can't afford the initial investment required to make automation work. Other times, experts say, companies embark on an automation plan, make a mistake or plan poorly, and end up getting sucked into a money pit.
"Automation is clearly something that is desirable because you can lower your costs by taking people out of the equation as much as possible," said Tony Iams, a senior vice president and senior analyst with Ideas International in Rye Brook, New York. "On the other hand, if you're applying automation, you'd better make sure it works correctly, or you're setting yourself up for trouble. You don't need a lot of imagination figure out what can go wrong."
Iams said companies that get the most out of automation projects tend to be those that proceeded with extreme caution when adopting and deploying the technology.
"Anyone who is savvy appreciates the value that automation brings, but at the same time appreciates the huge risks," he said.
1. Failure to communicate
Companies looking at automation technologies often assume that they can get started with the technology right away, said David Williams, a research vice president with Stamford, Conn.-based analyst firm Gartner Inc. The truth, however, is that their IT infrastructure often isn't set up to properly use automation.
"This doesn't only apply to big enterprises, this applies to all companies," Williams said. "They're not always organized in a way that enables automation to be easily digestible."
IT infrastructures generally consist of specialists who focus on a particular area or discipline, such as server management, networking or applications management. But automation can easily bleed into multiple domain areas.
For example, Williams said, the networking infrastructure may need to be orchestrated with something in the server infrastructure -- and when you make that change, you may need to include some of the security components.
"When you automate something, it's nice to think that you can automate in a silo," Williams said. "But most automation value is across IT organizations."
2. Focusing too much on technology
It's easy to get caught up in all the hype surrounding popular technologies like automation software, but IT managers should really consider the business metrics they're trying to improve.
In other words, Iams said, don't set out to automate, set out to solve a problems. Companies should identify the business problem they want to solve, then try to solve it using the technologies that make the most sense. For example, a company that wants to reduce headcount might start with the goal of increasing the number of servers that each systems administrator can realistically manage on his own.
"That would be the real goal, and if automation helps you get there, fine, but there may be other things that can help you get there," Iams said. "It could be provisioning software, for example, or it could be a number of other tactics that may help you increase the ratio of servers to administrator. Have metrics that make sense. Don't just focus on the tactic for the sake of focusing on the tactic."
3. Failure to understand the reasons for automating
Companies interested in automation software need to decide if they are automating primarily to save costs or are if they are automating primarily to increase efficiencies, Williams said.
The answers to those questions should have a major impact on the automation implementation path the company takes.
Companies looking to drive out costs or reduce headcount would likely choose to automate many small, repetitive things, Williams said. Doing so may drive some of the minutia out of day-to-day operations and ultimately allow companies to decrease staff.
Firms that want to use automation to increase efficiencies could conceivably take the same approach, but they're better off automating big things, Williams said, like the addition or removal of virtual components and configuration changes.
"The full value of the process of automation is to get the big things done," the analyst explained. "Doing this means more skills would be required and more effort would be required. You're not going to drive costs out necessarily, but you are going to increase efficiencies."
4. Failure to build trust in automation technology over time
Smart users proceed cautiously with automation technologies, said Iams, and they have extraordinarily long testing processes for anything that brings automation into the equation.
"What that means is that after you set up some framework for automating tasks, before you actually allow it to take actions, you continuously use it on an advisory basis," Iams said. "You let that play out for a couple of weeks to a couple of months, and [when you're sure you trust it] let the system do it by itself and see what happens."
5. Not tracking the value of automation
Automation software quickly becomes an unsung hero of the IT infrastructure when it's working properly, and folks tend to take it for granted. That's a big mistake, according to Williams.
Companies need to track the value of their automation software investment to make sure they're getting a return.
"You've got to make sure that the automation you're building itself has a reporting mechanism that continually reminds you of the value it's providing you," Williams said. "Then you can justify more automation, you can justify more investment in the tools which allow you to automate."
Getting started: A list of IT automation tools
|Product||What is it?||Features|
|HP Data Center Automation Center||IT management automation for data center infrastructures (servers, network assets, storage, etc.)||Automates responses to SOX and other compliance audits; gives comprehensive view of the environment, down to individual configurations; ideal for large, geographically distributed and multi-vendor environments|
|CA Workload Automation||Advanced job scheduler that automates workloads across distributed systems, mainframes, ERP systems, etc.||Flexible job scheduling that allows for specific business needs; file transfer capabilities are included; drag-and-drop interface|
|Opalis Integration Server||Data center automation for clouds, incident response, change and compliance, provisioning, and more||Rapid integration between data center and management tools with a publish/subscribe data bus; code-free dashboard; migrate workflows from test to dev or across physical, virtual and cloud infrastructures|
|VMware vCenter Orchestrator||Workflow automation engine for VMware vSphere||Turn your own best practices into automated workflows and use out-of-the-box workflows included with the product; drag-and-drop workflow creation; access to the vCenter Server API and its 800-plus actions|
|Network Automation AutoMate 7.1||No-code IT process automation tool for the midmarket||No scripts or batch files necessary with GUI-based Task Builder; centralized management and administration of all automated workloads; 230 pre-built actions that can be dragged and dropped together; Premium Edition includes support for SMNP, runtime, Active Directory and more|
|BMC Control-M||Job scheduling and workflow automation for distributed systems and mainframes||Integrates job scheduling and batch processing to one point of management; monitors and manages production; encryption and auditing ensures security; Control-M for z/OS supports more than 20 platforms and applications|
|Symantec Workflow||Process automation that integrates Symantec products as well as third-party technologies||Create complex process automation without code; newly added support for Symantec Management Platform 7.0; advanced reporting with multiple ways to view data|
|Prism Microsystems EventTracker||Security Information and Event Management product that combines log management and configuration and change management for Windows configurations||Real-time tracking of network events; automates regulatory compliance; editions for small, medium and large enterprises|
|Novell PlateSpin Orchestrate||IT automation tool for virtualized data centers||Combines resource management, job management, dynamic provisioning, policy management, and accounting and auditing capabilities; controls the full lifecycle of each virtual machine; includes a CMDB and incorporates ITIL processes; based on open standards|
|NetIQ Aegis||IT process automation that models, automates, measures and improves run books and ITIL-based processes||Separate correlation engine that reduces the number of event triggers from multiple sources and re-prioritizes events according to impact on service; real-time workflow monitoring with a Web-based interface; adapters for integration Microsoft System Center Operations Manager, EMC Smarts and BMC Remedy Action Request System as well as other NetIQ products|
|IBM Tivoli Provisioning Manager||Data center automation for heterogeneous and geographically dispersed environments||Problem resolution includes Web Replay plug-in that can capture and re-run scenarios; "one-button" automation for VM management; easy-to-use application for streamlined migration to Microsoft Vista; consolidation of workloads onto fewer servers for increased energy efficiency; single installation server and user interface for Linux deployments|
What did you think of this feature? Write to SearchDataCenter.com's Matt Stansberry about
your data center concerns at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This was first published in August 2009