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IT operations automation requires code-wielding sys admins

Today's systems administrator sees more lines of code than racks of servers.

The line between sys admins and developers is beginning to blur thanks to IT operations automation.

For years, IT has been siloed into separate disciplines. Few, if any, crossed those lines. One of the starkest divisions was the separation between the server teams and developers. These two worlds worked together, but they mixed like oil and water.

As data centers continue to grow and struggle to keep up with the pace of business, many traditional processes have given way to more agile methods. Server provisioning is no longer about racking and stacking hardware; it's about provisioning VMs. Networking is no longer about switches and routers; it's about virtual local area networks and software-defined networking.

However, this journey wasn't simply about changing how we delivered data center resources. It also had an effect on people. As the data center has become more software-defined, it has enabled IT to show a level of agility and responsiveness that simply didn't exist before. For better or worse, businesses not only embraced this rapid IT delivery, they began to demand it.

Setting a high bar

Once, IT delays were caused by waiting for deliveries and hardware installation; today, an administrator who is taking too much time to deploy VMs is the problem. Using a graphical user interface (GUI) for IT tasks simply takes too much time. Administrators are asked to manage hundreds to thousands of VMs thanks to the explosive growth in virtualization and the VM sprawl that accompanied it. This has led to growth in automation to help admins cope with these tasks and duties.

While some level of IT automation has existed for years, it was often smaller scripts and batch jobs that took care of a few stand-alone tasks. Today, automation has become a critical part of data center operations as our applications scale out while staffing stays the same.

The IT operations automation interface has evolved over the years, but for the most part, it is still based on code, even if that code is sometimes abstracted by GUIs. This code helps administrators schedule and execute tasks across a wide range of servers and applications, effectively doing more with less. While this sounds great on paper, there is a fundamental problem: Most administrators don't know how to code. Coding is seen as the domain of a developer in a different IT silo.

Developers are expensive, and unless they were hired to support IT operations automation, having them work on your infrastructure may not be the best use of internal resources. Additionally, most administrators have restricted developers from administrator-level access to ensure they don't inadvertently mess things up, so why would you give them control of your data center now? Just because the interface has changed, should the level access change as well? Additionally, while developers may have the coding knowledge, applying that knowledge to operations can be hazardous if they don't understand the nuances of the infrastructure.

The sys admin role must evolve

The flipside to this coin is teaching system administrators how to code. Graphical interfaces are the norm for most sys admins, and programming is limited to writing scripts. While this may seem like an uphill battle, many administrators will find they have the foundation they need.

Additionally, many automation products and some wizards are able to display the code behind their functions so that administrators can see what's happening behind the graphical interface. This allows the sys admin to have a base set of code to work with rather than trying to write something from scratch. Modifying existing code takes a lot less time and drastically reduces the complexity of the process. This has given people with limited code experience a framework that is specific to their environment and can kick start IT operations automation projects by serving as a template.

The sys admin has always bridged the differing worlds of development and operations. They have had to walk the gray line between pushing things forward and keeping existing systems running. It makes sense that the automation tasks for IT operations fall to the sys admins -- having insight into both groups gives them a unique vision. The tools keep getting better, giving them the skills to make a difference without having to completely relearn everything. It's the next step in the ever-changing role of the sys admin, it's here to stay and it's growing.

Brian Kirsch is an IT architect and instructor at Milwaukee Area Technical College, focusing primarily on the virtualization and storage environments.

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