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The right time to embrace server automation tools

Understanding your organizations' circumstances and requirements can be the difference between server automation success and failure.

Server automation is quickly emerging as an essential tool for modern data centers but organizations must weigh the costs, technical requirements and business complications before wholesale adoption.

Perform a cost/benefit analysis on the value of server automation. Automation means consistency and error-reduction -- doing the same thing the same way for every server without mistakes. Server automation tools orchestrate system configurations and workload provisioning while generating comprehensive reports for regulatory compliance and internal analysis. It takes a complex and expensive platform to achieve this. If the cost of acquiring, deploying, maintaining and using the platform is less than what the organization pays for IT staff to perform manual tasks server-by-server, then server automation is probably worthwhile. The time IT staff saves through server automation can be redirected to strategic projects that add value.

There is no single, universal inflection point for adoption. A business with 1,000 servers using simple static configurations wouldn't benefit from server automation, but another business with the same 1,000 servers using complex and frequently changing configurations will save significant effort and eliminate costly errors with automation.

Although data centers in any industry can benefit from server automation tools, certain issues like compliance intensify demand. Health care organizations governed by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, retail organizations subject to Payment Card Industry rules, and any publicly held business covered by the Sarbanes-Oxley Act are vulnerable to hefty fines and legal complications if data is not retained and secured properly. Automated configuration and management will prevent mistakes with data reporting.

Is server automation ever a bad idea?

Even though server automation can save time and expense, and avoid security or regulatory compliance breaches, it requires a commitment of IT skill and underlying infrastructure to deploy and maintain. As a result, there are some cases where the technology might not be appropriate.

Small businesses with a limited contingent of servers -- less than 500 -- will probably see little, if any, return on a server automation tool investment. Smaller organizations may find that system reporting, managing and monitoring are not time-consuming for IT compared to the effort to acquire, deploy, learn and use one or more automation tools.

Some organizations do not standardize server configurations. Everything is configured or tailored differently or even used out of the box with no unique provisioning. These organizations will attain little benefit from automation software.

Privately held businesses that are not bound by regulatory compliance may not be able to justify the cost of a server automation deployment.

On the other hand, large enterprises with more comprehensive systems management needs, such as system lifecycle management, might opt for a broad management suite that includes server automation as one component.

Supporting a server automation tool

Understand the hardware commitment required to support server automation tools.

A small to midsize environment could support about 3,000 servers with a single server automation appliance. For example, CA Technologies' Server Automation prescribes a single basic system for the management workstation: A dual-core 64-bit processor, 4 GB of RAM, a single Gigabit Ethernet port and 72 GB of storage configured as a RAID 5 group. This is a minimum configuration for the simplest deployment scheme.

Larger environments usually deploy full enterprise management software components across multiple management servers. These deployments demand multiple agent images, manage remote or multiple locations or support large amounts of system hardware. The multiple servers for the management workstation may need two or four multicore processors and huge amounts of random access memory, multiple local area network ports to sustain busy automation traffic, and hundreds of gigabytes of storage to support full-blown SQL database operations. An example is Hewlett-Packard Co.'s Server Automation software, which recommends two processors and 2 GB of memory for every 1,500 servers managed.

Don't forget to discuss scalability and its impact on platform requirements. A single management server may be fine for your current environment, but how will that server automation tool's needs change as the environment grows?

Understand the lines of demarcation where additional management servers, advanced database applications or new storage logical unit numbers will be required. A single management server may automate up to 1,500 servers, but if the environment were to grow to 2,000 servers, you may need a second management system.

Some tool vendors offer dedicated server automation appliances, such as HP's Server Automation Standard -- pre-loaded with the software components needed to manage several thousand servers. This approach shortens deployment time and reduces the learning curve for IT staff, particularly in small environments.

It's relatively easy to download a demonstration version of a server automation tool and deploy it in test and development. There is a huge difference in performance and system requirements between this lab evaluation on 10 systems and deployment in a production environment with 10,000 systems. Confer with server automation vendors early in the evaluation process and get a clear picture of the servers, networking and storage needed for your deployment.

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