Definition

IT automation

This definition is part of our Essential Guide: Primer on DevOps roles and responsibilities

IT automation is the use of instructions to create a repeated process that replaces an IT professional's manual work in data centers and cloud deployments. Software tools, frameworks and appliances conduct the tasks with minimum administrator intervention. The scope of IT automation ranges from single actions to discrete sequences and, ultimately, to an autonomous IT deployment that takes actions based on user behavior and other event triggers.

IT automation is different from orchestration, but commonly, the terms are used together. Automation accomplishes a task repeatedly without human intervention. Orchestration is a broader concept wherein the user coordinates automated tasks into a cohesive process or workflow for IT and the business. For example, an IT administrator enables workload scaling with automated instance creation, operating system (OS) installs and storage provisioning. They orchestrate the automation tasks in a workflow with a specific order of operations for each task. Orchestration can also include permissions and roles enforcement, approval gates and more.

How IT automation affects processes

IT automation relies on software tools to define and conduct a prescribed series of detailed actions that are invoked manually or by an external trigger, such as a change in IT capacity demand.

IT automation replaces a series of actions and responses between an administrator and the IT environment. For example, an IT automation platform, such as Microsoft Windows PowerShell, combines cmdlets, variables and other components into a script to mimic the series of commands and steps that an administrator would invoke one line at a time through the command-line interface (CLI) to provision a virtual machine (VM) or implement a backup process. A more complex IT automation outcome can be achieved by combining multiple scripts into a series. These limited-scope automation processes are most beneficial when they replace a task that an administrator has to perform frequently. Admins do not save much, if any, time by automating a rote action made once per month. Automating a rote action that occurs multiple times a day, however, significantly increases an administrator's  time for other tasks that require decision-making and assessment skills.

IT automation delivery cycle
IT automation tools shift the focus from completing repetitive tasks to strategic efforts to match business needs.

Enterprise-class IT infrastructure automation tools trigger actions in response to thresholds and other situational conditions in the IT environment. Advanced IT automation tools oversee the configuration of systems, software and other infrastructure components; recognize unauthorized or unexpected changes; and automatically take corrective actions. For example, if a workload stops responding, this triggers the automated steps to restart it on a different server that has available capacity to run it. When IT automation is set to enforce a desired state of configurations, the tool will detect changes in a server's configuration that are out of spec and restore it to the correct settings.

IT automation pros and cons

IT automation's benefits include faster data center and cloud operations; reduced errors and variation from one implementation of a task to the next; and enhanced security and governance. However, an IT automation strategy must account for and eliminate errors; an automated error will proliferate much more quickly than a manual error. IT automation can also erroneously become a goal in and of itself, regardless of the return on investment from the initial setup work to time saved.

Speed. IT operations requires a significant number of distinct tasks. An IT administrator can accomplish each task manually, but modern business demands place extraordinary pressure on IT staff to respond quickly to needs across large, complex infrastructures. Humans cannot provision and configure workloads in minutes and accomplish all of the individual routine tasks required, at any time of day. Automation frees administrators from time spent on routine tasks so that they can apply themselves to value-added projects for the business, such as IT infrastructure optimization and experimentation with promising new technologies and products.

While automation saves time, it requires that admins carefully plan and research each task necessary for the intended workflow and then correctly translate those steps into the automation platform to achieve the desired end state. A company may appoint one or more IT automation managers, replacing or supplementing the role of IT administrators.

Accuracy. An IT administrator is liable to make an error while typing in a CLI, choose the wrong configuration setting for a server, overlook a key step in a complex task or make other mistakes. Errors lead admins to take additional time to troubleshoot and repeat the work process to get it right. IT automation enables an IT professional to construct a proven, accurate sequence of operations that can be run countless times in exactly the same manner.

While countless repetition without deviation is a benefit of IT automation, it can also be detrimental. Errors and oversights are easily codified into an automated process, which the automation tool will perform as quickly and efficiently as it does the correct steps. If the administrator automates a complex sequence of events and misses a key step or sets a variable incorrectly, that error is repeated ad nauseam until it is caught, remediated and rolled back. The 2010 flash crash of the United States stock market damaged global trade because of an automated computer system with a flawed algorithm. Test and vetting procedures must be part of an IT automation strategy.

Intent. An automated system is not the same thing as an intelligent system; it only knows as much as the human that programmed it can distill into scripts and commands. For example, an email spam filter is an automated IT mechanism with the intent to filter out unwanted messages. Occasionally, valid email messages will end up in the spam folder, and unwanted spam email gets past the filter.

Governance. Different IT administrators perform the same task in different ways, and even the same administrator handles a task differently from one time to the next. For corporate governance and regulatory compliance, an IT automation strategy demonstrates consistency in IT operations, regardless of the administrator on any given day.

Flexibility. Processes change over time as the IT infrastructure grows and changes, and technologies and best practices evolve. Automated processes remain static until a person decides to change them. Organizations must have a set workflow to update and revalidate automation processes, including disciplined automation versioning that tracks how tasks change over time.

Integration and interoperability. IT automation tools must be compatible with systems, software and other elements across potentially diverse IT environments. Ideally, an automation tool should integrate with higher-level orchestration tools to roll tasks together under governed workflows.

Implementing IT automation does not guarantee results. No tool, framework or appliance assures that the IT organization will eliminate errors, improve security or enhance compliance. IT staff need competence and skill using IT automation tools to translate IT behaviors into concrete procedural steps. For example, to use PowerShell, IT staff must understand hundreds of cmdlets with proper syntax and command-line usage.

Major IT automation vendors

IT automation products appear and evolve rapidly; each product has a specific focus and scope for IT and the business.

Microsoft is a traditional IT vendor that supplies automation in products such as System Center 2016 Orchestrator and Service Manager, as well as PowerShell and PowerShell Desired State Configuration (DSC). Other automation vendors have more narrowly focused product lines. For example, CA Technologies offers Server Automation for tasks such as server provisioning and patching and OS configuration, as well as automation of storage and application components, client systems and other major enterprise specializations. A similar tool, BMC Software's BladeLogic Server Automation, includes preconfigured compliance policies for the Center for Internet Security (CIS), Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA), Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and other regulations. There are also countless emerging automation vendors in the software-defined infrastructure space, such as Chef, Puppet, SaltStack and HashiCorp. These DevOps IT automation tools support software development and deployment integrated with infrastructure configurations, sometimes called infrastructure as code (IAC). The automation capabilities are designed so that users can create and support consistent workflows from development to operations.

The future of IT automation

IT automation is hardly a new idea, but the technology is still in its formative stages. Even the most full-featured tools depend on an IT professional or team to develop and maintain discrete automation elements, such as scripts, templates, policies and workflows.

IT automation will progress to act with greater intelligence and autonomy. IT automation platforms are likely to rely heavily on artificial intelligence (AI) technologies. For example, an automation tool can synthesize data on configurations, performance and other information across an IT deployment and process these inputs to discover a normal system operations benchmark, a deviation from which would trigger corrective actions. IT automation systems imbued with AI insights theoretically lessen the importance of deliberate, human-made automation rules, relying instead on autonomous choices guided by high-level business cost and compliance requirements.

Process automation, robotic process automation and service automation

IT automation is a broad term, often conflated or bound together with business task automation. An automated IT workflow can accomplish a strictly IT task, such as provisioning additional storage to a VM, or a business task, such as creating a new user account on the corporate email system.

Process automation improves workflows, typically in factories and other settings, where the same task or series of tasks occurs repeatedly.

Business process automation (BPA) is the application of IT automation to achieve goals such as increased worker productivity or lower costs of operations.

Some professionals refer to IT automation as service automation; they are functionally the same thing.

This was last updated in October 2017

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