IT Automation, from an Architectural Point of View

Arthur Cole

Few would argue that automation will be a crucial component to virtual/cloud environments going forward. The question is implementing an integrated, overarching, operating environment that can accommodate the sometimes wildly disparate needs between, and among, physical, virtual and cloud architectures. Advanced Systems Concepts’ (ASC) Colin Beasty, product marketing manager, speaking with Arthur Cole, argues for a shift away from platforms focusing on point solutions to one that can cross multiple systems and processes: what he calls the “architectural approach” to automation.

Cole: ASC has been talking about a more “architectural approach” to IT automation lately. How is that different from current practices?

Beasty: Today, IT organizations typically take what I’d call an elemental approach to IT automation; they implement point scheduling solutions to automate specific IT tasks or processes. For example, they write a script to pass data between two platforms and automate that script using Windows Task Scheduler or Cron — for instance, if a DBA needs to automate database backups and purchases a tool for automating SQL Server backups or uses SQL Server Agent. This same concept can extend to process types as well, such as implementing an automation tool for runbook automation, a job scheduler to fulfill batch processing requirements, etc.

This line of thinking, while sound in the short term, presents IT operational issues for the organization as a whole in the long term. With IT organizations operating in increasingly distributed environments, this elemental approach means implementing a solution without thinking of the bigger picture, cross-departmental automation requirements that are at play. Eventually those common IT tasks and processes are going to become dependent on one another. Moreover, these point scheduling solutions represent a temporary fix that becomes outdated or insufficient within a few years and that only increases complexity and imposes higher costs and resources for maintaining and managing multiple tools moving forward.

The idea is to take an architectural approach by bringing the automation of these tasks and processes under one roof, so to speak. IT environments are growing in complexity while businesses are becoming increasingly dependent on IT-based services for commercial success in today’s 24/7, Internet-driven world. In order to more efficiently automate and manage the critical dependencies between systems and process types, it requires an automation solution that bridges those boundaries.

Cole: Most enterprises are currently operating across physical, virtual, cloud, and now mobile architectures. Is it necessary, or even desirable, to integrate all of them under a single automation platform?

Beasty: Absolutely, and the reason why it’s becoming so desirable is a result of the importance that automation now plays in allowing IT to directly support the business. IT automation has evolved dramatically from the old days of batch processing and has moved to the forefront to automate critical IT processes that can directly impact the ability of the business to operate, hit SLAs, affect IT operational costs, etc.

I think first and foremost taking an architectural approach lays the foundation for a policy-driven automation strategy that drives governance, visibility and control, allowing IT to more quickly respond to the demands of the business when something does break, rather than looking for a script running on some disparate server. You’re not just providing a central point of automation, but a central point of monitoring and therefore governance. That governance can also be critically important to ensure that businesses are staying in compliance within industry or federal regulations. For example, we’ve had financial service companies and health care providers that have failed to stay in compliance with Sarbanes Oxley or HIPAA because somebody made an unauthorized change to a script that in turn released information that shouldn’t have been made public. That’s a big problem, but bringing the automation of these processes into a single solution goes a long way toward solving that issue.

The other benefit is productivity of the IT staff. More so than anything else, centralizing IT automation is about being able to do more with the same while doing a better job of supporting the business. Managing the automation of processes across disparate platforms can be time-consuming and requires lots of manual intervention, especially when relying on scripting. Moreover, manual intervention improves the chances of manual error, and that in turn can lead to issues like those mentioned above.

Finally, if you’re talking about virtual and cloud platforms, bringing virtualization and the cloud into the automation equation is the most effective way to automatically allocate resources to workload processing where and when it’s needed. Rather than provisioning server resources for peak demand – and paying the price for underutilization during low workload demands – the era of cloud computing provides the ability to match workload execution with resource capacity in a pay-as-you-go model. IT automation is required to ensure that capacity matches closely with workload demand, thus eliminating the costs of idle resources between spikes in workloads.

Cole: Is there a danger that over-reliance on automation will make it difficult for the enterprise to adjust to changing circumstances? Is it possible for automated systems to react to unpredictable circumstances?

Beasty: I would argue that IT automation actually makes it easier to adjust to changing circumstances. I think it’s important to remember that by “IT automation” and with solutions such as ActiveBatch, we’re certainly not suggesting removing the human element, but rather making it easier for the IT professional to automate and manage their IT organization instead of jumping around from one point solution to the next. The benefit of that means being able to react faster when changes are required. For example, one of the most popular use cases for our software is in support of data warehousing/BI processes, and automating those processes within end-to-end workflows within our software. We’re finding that when the business does require some new sort of report, updating and altering the underlying workflow within ActiveBatch is much easier, and therefore much faster, than if the organization was relying on a series of disparate scripts or scheduling tools spread out across various databases, ETL tools and BI solutions.

Is it possible for automated systems to react to unpredictable circumstances? Not really, because an IT automation solution is only as smart as the human operator managing it. By that I mean if the IT professional didn’t see it coming, then the software solution sure won’t either. The key to an effective IT automation solution is the ability to recognize when an error has occurred or when it’s reached an unpredictable circumstance, and then to leverage compliance and control, alerting and error handling, and to notify that human element and therefore bring him or her back into the equation.

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