Orchestration software: The functions and vendors to watch
A collection of articles that takes you from defining technology needs to purchasing options
Once orchestration software buyers have established their environment, goals, size and growth predictions, they can begin to look at what is available in orchestration technology, features and functions. This is the fun part -- buyers get to see what the orchestration platforms can bring to their organizations. Still, establish a few guidelines and criteria to not become overwhelmed by all of the bells and whistles that different platforms offer. After all, the product is less about technical capabilities and more about the business workflows that it will help to enable.
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Integrating orchestration software with existing automation
A tool's ability to integrate with existing automation is the true key to successful orchestration software. This may reference a wide range of products from technically advanced Ansible, Puppet or Chef to the more simplistic ones such as PowerShell or a Linux command-line interface (CLI) for shell scripts. The point to remember is the orchestration platform isn't creating the automation -- it is using automation to complete the workflows. This means the ability to link the orchestration tool to the automation tools is critical -- without that there is simply not a workflow. The integration function needs to support the ability to both execute automation scripts as part of an orchestrated workflow, and get feedback and status results for those automation tasks. A workflow is based on successful execution of the automation -- without confirmation that each task was completed, it will be difficult to manage multiple tools through the orchestration platform.
One of the key capabilities of a new orchestration tool is to deploy services quickly and efficiently. User-friendliness is necessary to create those workflows. If the orchestration tool requires a monolithic amount of effort to create a new workflow, where is the value in it? Tools that possess many capabilities tend to be challenging to use, so vendors will typically offer product training. To learn effectively, the staff has to be offline for the training. If a large number of people require training, then that can be a resource issue. The cost of not training the staff, though, is that only a few people can or should have exposure to the workflows created. The orchestration tool should be front and center to workflows and deployed broadly to the IT organization. Limiting access to the tool because of required training or high complexity puts the effort two steps behind.
When looking at the deployment aspects of each product, remember the audience, i.e., who are most of the clients. If you're running a lot of Linux operating systems, the Microsoft Orchestrator tool might not be an ideal selection. Several products such as BMC Control-M, Automic and Ayehu are more vendor-neutral and can be better for multi-OS shops. Other products, such as VMware's Orchestrator, and the aforementioned Microsoft Orchestrator, are more set up for users experienced on that vendor's products who use them frequently.
A successful deployment of a workflow is more important than its development. The chosen orchestration tool needs to have a solid interface into the automation tools and scripts -- otherwise the workflow user will waste time searching for the status of each task. Matching the deployment abilities to the internal clients and their needs is a key piece of the integration puzzle in the deployment question.
It's easy to overlook a critical system or protocol that is an essential part of the workflow. Buyers must examine how their integration process works -- what interfaces they use and what open or closed formats they follow. While many primary business systems follow some level of standards such as PowerShell or CLI, these standards might not be the ideal format to utilize the automation if they are more referenced as external interfaces requiring conversion rather than native interfaces. Additionally, what if your automation was created in a proprietary format that is not translatable to a more open standard that the orchestration software supports? Buyers will need to ensure compatibility between the automation and orchestration and the compatibility level in order to determine if the tool can be dropped into the environment without extensive rewrites of the automation tasks. Some of the larger tool set such as Microsoft Orchestrator, BMC Control-M and CA Workload Automation have extensive abilities to interface and work with a large number of platforms. That ability though also comes with additional complexity and cost which can weigh heavily on the compatibility decision and efforts.
Create workflows with reusable components
The workflow is truly the connection point for everything else. For it to be effective, it must be feature-rich with a combination of flexibility and scalability to fit diverse workflows. Creation of a workflow is most likely a laborious task due to the number of connections and policies involved, but it should have future benefits. The overall goal should not be to create each workflow from scratch, but to reuse common pieces of workflows to create new workflows. One new workflow should enable the ability to create more workflows based on existing components. The chosen orchestration software needs to not only duplicate parts or the entire workflow for the user, but also retain the intelligence attached with it to reuse or repurpose parts of the orchestration for the next workflow. This will help to save time and effort, but it also comes with some significant challenges as you start to tie in alerting and automated responses to workflow components.
Orchestration workflows must have a level of intelligence built-in to handle events that can occur during a workflow. This could be something as simple as event-based alerting or something more complex such as automation adjustments based on existing policies or events to help efficiencies or correct workflow problems. The range of possible tasks is very wide here and the provided intelligence can be as much or as little as the organization desires. The key here is that the flexibility should exist for the organization to adjust to the level they need. These types of intelligent responses are initially based on examining workflow patterns and events, but over time, and with trends, they can help create policy adjustments to help increase efficiencies. This helps to remove the guess work from staff and will base resource and workflow decisions on the actual data combined with proven trends of how the environment has needed to respond and react to resource changes.
Reporting functions are critical
One of the most overlooked, but valuable aspects of any orchestration software is reporting. While not as technical or shiny as many of the other features, the reporting tends to be the external face of the product. The management and executives don't, and shouldn't, dive into the technical aspect; this window into the impact of the orchestration tool is critical to those who are outside of the technical impact. If the benefits are not communicated clearly it can reflect badly on the product even if it is working well. The reporting function must have the technical ability and detail to show both what its users need for their jobs as well as broad and overreaching reports that a wide range of audiences from technical to management can comprehend. Products such as BMC Control-M have gone to great lengths to include mobile-friendly reporting abilities to ensure delivery to all platforms. CA Workload Administrator has taken a strong focus on predictive and recovery abilities and reports in its iDash interface.
When examining the capabilities of orchestration software, don't focus on any one feature because this is a tool that must bridge multiple systems together. The focus must be as broad as the evaluation. Be honest with your evaluation in how long and what type of growth potential the product should have because nothing lasts forever with today's ever-changing technology. Also, orchestration software is a complex product and requires training and practice. Work with the vendors; ask to talk to other customers in your market that are using it to get an honest view of how things are working. Orchestration is a complex product -- the selection process can be just as complex.
What features to look for in an orchestration platform
Why workflow orchestration is critical for modern enterprises
How do orchestration services fit into a DevOps environment?