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Data center managers primed for IT process automation

Forget "lights out" management. Data center managers with good processes in place are ready to take the next step and automate, says a Gartner analyst.

Organizations are increasingly ready to invest in IT process automation (ITPA) technology, software that

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aims to make IT operations more efficient, according to findings from the Gartner Data Center Conference in Las Vegas last month. According to David Williams, a research vice president at the Stamford, Conn.-based research firm, , about one-third of attendees had moved beyond the tire-kicking stage and were ready to buy.

While large IT shops have deployed process automation for some time -- at "lights out" data centers, for example -- today's crop of IT process automation aims to do more than keep operations running smoothly. Now data centers are on a quest to become self-healing: When things go wrong, IT process automation software can trigger alerts and kick-start processes so that common problems can essentially fix themselves.

"Among clients, there's a lot higher maturity level," said Williams, who added that organizations need to standardize their processes prior to implementing ITPA. "IT also knows what the efficiency gains of automation are." Much of the awareness of automation is attributable to the IT infrastructure library (ITIL), as well as compliance and audit concerns.

The growing interest in ITPA is understandable. As data center infrastructures become increasingly complex, so do IT processes -- such as incident management, server provisioning and the like -- that keep infrastructure up and running. And while systems management monitors the performance and utilization of data center hardware, it can go only so far in keeping data centers running efficiently.

Also known as run book automation, ITPA should include three basic capabilities:
  • an orchestration engine (with process templates and role-based access);
  • workflow (rule-based workflow in which actions are automatically carried out in accordance with IT process requirements); and
  • integration (out-of-the-box integration with IT management systems, applications and operating systems).

The market for ITPA, meanwhile, is still in flux. "The space evolved at the beginning of 2006 with a number of small vendors coming to the market," Williams said. "Over the last two years, the market has consolidated to a degree -- BMC [Software] purchased RealOps and HP acquired Opsware -- but there are still niche vendors."

We were an early adopter of the software because we really had to fix our processes.
James Hankey, vice president of IT and director of operations
John G. Ullman & Associates Inc.

While major vendors have products in the data center automation arena -- most notably BMC, EMC Corp., and HP -- analysts say independent vendors are leading the way in innovation because they tend to focus exclusively on IT process automation rather than offer such functionality as part of a suite of service automation products. "Generally the niche players have development timelines that are shorter, they are more nimble, and they tend to integrate better across more environments," said Andi Mann, research director of systems management at Enterprise Management Associates Inc., a Boulder, Colo.-based analyst and consulting firm.

ITPA saves on staffing
James Hankey, vice president of IT and the director of operations at financial investment firm John G. Ullman & Associates Inc., is an ITPA veteran and uses Opalis Software Inc.'s offering. In 2000, the company needed to streamline the processes needed to produce client reports -- typically an intensive exercise that involves around 40 processes. Hankey turned to Opalis because it was the only vendor at the time that could help Ullman implement run book automation at a reasonable cost.

Levels of IT process automation
According to Charles Crouchman, the chief technology officer at Opalis Software Inc., data centers that deploy IT process automation can realize three levels, or layers, of value. "The first layer is as an integration technology with existing systems management tools," he said. "As you move up the value chain, data centers can then use IT process automation to automate within an IT discipline," Crouchman added. Such disciplines include incident management and configuration management. The final layer of value involves automating processes across disciplines. "Tying server, network and storage management together, so you can automate an incident process across all those disciplines," Crouchman said. "At the highest level of the value chain, you can't do this kind of process integration without automated workflow technology." Nor, said David Williams, a research vice president at Stamford, Conn.-based research firm Gartner Inc., can you accomplish such integration without a certain level of process ownership within IT. "If one group in IT does something that affects another group --such as adding a new server that then needs an IP address -- there has to be agreement as to who owns the process," Williams said. Such cultural issues need to be addressed before deploying IT process automation. --M.S.

"We were an early adopter of the software because we really had to fix our processes," Hankey said.

Since then, Ullman has stayed with Opalis, upgrading its ITPA software regularly. Since Ullman is a small shop with 28 Windows-based servers, Hankey said that ITPA software enables the company to compete more effectively by enabling the IT department to work on more strategic projects such as mobile access and server virtualization without hiring additional IT staff. Since implementing the Opalis software, Hankey estimates that his company has saved $75,000 simply by eliminating the overtime needed to produce client reports in a timely manner. Ullman has also maintained its low IT numbers because of the reduced staff involvement in day-to-day process control.

The ITPA product boom
Three of the most visible independent IT process automation vendors are NetIQ Corp., Opalis, and Optinuity Inc., and all have recently announced new IT process automation products. In October 2007, NetIQ introduced a software platform called Aegis that automates predefined workflows for such processes as patch management, virtual machine provisioning and incident management and integrates with existing service automation tools from third-party vendors. In November 2007, Opalis launched a new version of its Opalis Integration Server that enables IT process automation within service-oriented architecture and provides a testing environment for IT process workflow prior to deployment. Also in November, Optinuity introduced its Oasis, a system that integrates and automates policy management, monitoring and job scheduling for IT operations.

What's the reason for all this vendor activity? Both Williams and Mann say that the time is finally right for automation due to the complexity of IT infrastructures and taxing workloads of IT staff. "IT process automation has been around as a concept for a long time," said Mann. "Because of the growing complexity of IT, data centers are looking to either simplify their environments or fill gaps with automation tools that enable half the staff to manage the same workload." Williams points to other specific drivers of the IT process automation market. "High availability, disaster recovery and ITIL are all pushing data centers to seek operational efficiency gains," he said. "Using IT process automation tools to eliminate repetitive, manual processes is a good way to achieve that."

Let us know what you think about the story; email Megan Santosus, Features Writer .

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