The Rebirth of Automation

I suppose by now it is fait accompli that cloud computing is going to revolutionize the information technology industry.  It certainly seems on track to do so.  One of the main reasons for its success is the highly dynamic and virtualized environments that most cloud platforms provide.  In these modern “data centers” every resource – from virtualized processors and storage to network configuration – can be defined, deployed, configured, managed and maintained through software interaction alone.  No more cables to plug and unplug. No more racks to re-wire just because a server is being re-purposed. RAM can be added to an under-provisioned system in seconds, and never a chassis opened. And the list goes on…

It is in this only recently realized totally virtual data center that one of IT’s oldest workhorses may finally see its full potential realized: automation. It’s the key to achieving maximum efficiency because it provides the following benefits:

  • Task Compression – This time-honored method of increasing efficiency through abstraction is at the heart of automation’s promise. Processes which would normally require many manual steps are reduced to a single invocation.
  • Speed – Not only are machines good at repeating long lists of steps, they can do it quickly! Automated processes can be made to execute as fast as possible, with no unnecessary delays between steps.
  • Repeatable Successful Outcomes – Even with the best documentation, manual execution is prone to human error, such as missing, misreading, or misinterpreting a step. Automation helps to ensure that the same set of steps is always followed, in the same order, with the same results, every time an operation is performed.

So, if automation is so great, why is it only now getting broad traction?

“Run Book Automation” (RBA) has been around for decades, but has never been an easy-to-use or widely accessible technology.  Sure, it’s been possible to fully (well, nearly fully) automate many of the most mundane, frequently used, or most error-prone manual processes through brute force of a million different API’s and a few special-purpose proxies and operating system agents.  But those implementations – with many moving parts under the control of as many different companies that have little incentive to ensure their pieces work “better together” – have proved extremely brittle.  The expense of the software and human resources to design, construct and maintain such systems has only made them useful to the largest of organizations.

A modern incarnation of RBA – “Orchestration” – is well positioned to take full advantage of the new totally virtualized cloud platforms, with visual tools that make the creation and maintenance of automated processes more intuitive, and translation of those high-level intentions to various APIs and endpoints effortless.  Not only that: Codified processes, or “orchestrations,” can be packaged up and shared in community, or sold as products themselves.  Thus, modern orchestration solutions unleash automation from the shackles of traditional RBA and make it available to the masses.  Since cloud computing is in effect “enterprise-grade data centers for the masses,” it is no surprise that orchestration will find its way in to that very same market alongside it.

Although orchestration is finally hitting its stride, uncontrolled automation is a recipe for disaster.  That’s where “policy” comes in….a topic for another day…

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2 Responses to The Rebirth of Automation

  1. Ankit Bhatia says:

    Another great post Craig.

    What do you think the major themes of a policy should be? We think a lot about this here at ScaleGrid as automating is at most times the easy part, but providing a simple experience or “policy” around it is not. Automation with too many knobs will get you application sprawl and too few will defeat the purpose of automation.

    PS: Try out ScaleGrid SQLDirector if you get a chance. We have tried to take database automation to the next level by providing a DBaaS. The put great effort in getting a simple yet effective “policy” that would make sense for the IT admins and the end users.

    • Craig says:

      I’m planning a post in the next week or so to talk about what “policy” is – it is often used as a word, but rarely defined in detail. I think it is currently one of the most fertile frontiers in IT.