This content is part of the Essential Guide: An initiation into infrastructure automation tools and methods

Form an IT automation tool strategy the right way for the right reasons

It takes some effort and skill to ramp up IT automation, and the monetary return on investment will be murky at best. So why do we do it?

An IT automation tool can reduce cost, though that shouldn't be the main reason for its adoption. It can streamline...

IT operations, though that will prove much harder than it seems. And it can eliminate stand-alone scripts -- wait, no, nothing can do that.

IT automation tool deployments with orchestration hold tremendous promise for organizations tasked to move faster, shed manual tasks and adopt the hot new thing such as DevOps and containers.

"Automation becomes like breathing in and out -- if it works for you, you forget about it," said David Paul Williams, an analyst at Gartner, at the firm's IT Operations Strategies & Solutions Summit in Orlando, Fla., in May. While essential, IT automation's value and return on investment are difficult to measure.

Automate for the right reasons

IT automation reduces human involvement in individual tasks, but also increases the need for management and upfront planning and programming.

Do not cite the decrease in manual intervention as a cost justification for IT automation tool purchases, Williams warned, as it is usually not the case.

Think long-term about what problem the [IT automation] tool solves and the value it brings before you select one just because it does this or that.
Mona Singhsenior system administrator, FEPOC/CareFirst

The payback for an IT automation tool investment lies in the ability to roll out changes -- monthly, weekly or daily -- without issue, reliably and repeatedly, said Ian Head, a Gartner analyst. It mitigates the risk of deviation from a set task, and scales without increasing man hours.

Risk goes down, while speed goes up -- but cost might do either.

Not all applications in IT operations' support realm need automation in the same way. Gartner recommends planning an all-inclusive IT automation strategy. For predictable and stable applications, automation shaves off maintenance task time. For applications that change rapidly, successful automation carries code seamlessly through development, test, deployment and operations, said Ronni Colville, a Gartner analyst.

Build an automation toolchain

Automation exists in many locations and places, and it's inherent in nearly every modern IT operations tool. Most IT organizations have IT automation tools, but lack a strategy to govern their use.

Point tools automate specific tasks, which is useful but confusing with no centralized IT automation manager to control them. A relatively uncontrolled bevy of scripts are usually poorly documented but essential to maintaining the IT estate -- which is why stand-alone scripts endure like cockroaches in a nuclear winter, he said.

This reality is the starting point for an IT automation strategy. IT shops usually want a strategy that winnows dozens of tools to a handful. Ask questions: Is automation in the right places? What activities are associated with the release of the app onto its environment? Does one tool automate the same tasks in development and in production?

Clearly articulate which activities automation should support before you choose tools. An overarching strategy is not a tool that does X, but lays out a plan to pass information or app code seamlessly from one activity to another throughout the application lifecycle, Head said.

"When I'm looking at automation tools, I want to see what benefits it brings versus the work and vulnerability that it adds," said Mona Singh, senior system administrator at FEPOC/CareFirst. Singh manages an estate of Linux servers and gave his opinion on automation at last month's Red Hat Summit in Boston. A script can provision new VMs or patch servers just as well as a tool, so the offering has to do more.

Think long-term about what problem the tool solves and the value it brings before you select one just because it does this or that, Singh said -- in the end you must host, patch and manage it along with all your other tools.

Assess the current and prospective IT automation tool footprint: Only keep a tool that enables two of these goals: faster execution, lower risk and lower cost, Williams said. Purge a tool with redundant capabilities. Nothing runs as smooth as automation vendors promises, and vendor tools don't work well together.

Automate then orchestrate

"To make things simpler, we add something -- that's the IT industry," Williams said. To make automation simpler, IT shops add orchestration.

Orchestration tools provide a high-level view to manage the automation tasks occurring on the IT infrastructure. IT organizations often make the mistake of buying an orchestration tool and mapping out a way for everything to fit into the tool. Instead, Gartner advised, start with automation then test out orchestration tools to suit it. Avoid orchestration tools that are blind to what's happening inside the automation tools and simply wait for each step to complete in a workflow. 

Demand for automation skills

IT automation implementations stagnate due to a lack of skill in the current IT workforce.

"You can't expect it to be self-feeding -- [the IT automation toolchain] needs coordination and people to drive it forward," Williams said.

IT automation technology can do whatever you tell it to, by and large. Skilled automation experts must define how automation improves operations, processes that dictate what is automated, and how automation should traverse different groups and technological silos.

It isn't just about how to churn out newly provisioned systems faster, Williams said, but also recognizing interdependencies and tying in monitoring information to build that automated flow from dev to ops and back.

When United Services Automobile Association (USAA) began its IT automation tool implementation, the company cherry-picked members from various teams, said Ray Federico, a member of that original group who is now lead operations system integrator for business continuation at USAA, a major insurance provider based in San Antonio.

These pilot automators would go to various teams and ask about their tasks, and which tasks didn't require human input. The group then created an automation strategy and presented executives with an estimate of the time saved.

USAA's automation specialists built a tool set for the users, and put it into production for about a year before being formalized into an automation team, which has since grown to two teams.

Gartner delineates three core automation jobs: the automation manager, architect and engineer. From there, the team can grow and evolve.

"Automation has never chased IT operations out the door," Williams said. In fact, whether organizations train up internally or hire for the job, they face massive personnel shortages.

Meredith Courtemanche is a senior site editor in TechTarget's Data Center and Virtualization group, with sites including SearchITOperations, SearchWindowsServer and SearchExchange. Find her work @DataCenterTT or email her at [email protected].

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