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My thoughts on Microsoft’s System Center Opalis product

Getting to know Opalis and understanding where it fits within the big picture.

What is Opalis? Well for those that have been in a closet, Opalis was an automation platform that was snapped up by Microsoft late last year. Rebranded System Center Opalis, this platform is targeted to provide a vehicle that IT pros can use to automate tasks across various systems via a workflow without “necessarily” writing code. Based on Microsoft’s marketing materials the key selling points for Opalis are:

  • Universal connectivity such that Opalis will work with both Microsoft and non-Microsoft systems.
  • A pipeline (they call it a data bus) that is used to pass data through the workflow and in or out of systems. I really love the tag line: “without code, scripts, or variables.”
  • Intelligent workflow that is supposed to adapt based on the data that is being pumped through the “data bus”.
  • Script-Code Free Automation as stated: “Integrate and orchestrate systems without fragile, hardcoded scripts.”

Wow what is with all the hate for scripts? In my opinion writing some code can’t be all that bad. In fact, I firmly believe that being able to write a script or two is something that all IT pros should know. Furthermore to claim that scripts are always hardcoded and fragile is a bunch of hog wash. It all depends. So just exactly how does Opalis achieve the miracle of codeless automation?

Well part of the secret sauce is the previously mentioned data bus. The primary purpose of the data bus is to collect data when a workflow object runs. This data is then passed on to subsequent workflow objects for consumption or used for the logic to control branches in the workflow itself. In other words, the data bus is just a pipeline. The second part of the secret sauce is the workflow objects themselves. Whether these objects are part of the Foundation Object Library or come from an Integration Pack they provide a collection of reusable automation building blocks. For example, there are workflow objects that “Query WMI” , “Write to Database”, “Invoke Web Service”, “Copy File”, “Read Text File”, “Send SNMP Trap”, and so on. Additionally, these objects also act to fulfill that universal connectivity claim that was mentioned earlier. Objects that come from Opalis integration packs allow you to connect into Microsoft and non-Microsoft systems and interact with them.

So have I drunk the Kombucha? Well… as everyone knows, I’m big believer in automation. If fact, I often state that if I have to do anything more than once, I will write a script for it. While I think that Opalis has a place in the bigger picture, I do not believe in its current state it is the end-all automation platform. To start with, Opalis has a number of issues that make working with it a bit clunky. For example, if you want to install the current version of Opalis you had better have a Windows Server 2003 SP2 32-bit machine handy (its technology base is a bit old). The data bus is a bit of a pain when you need to manipulate data before passing it to the next automation task. In fact, Microsoft released the Integration Pack for Data Manipulation in June to try and address some of these issues. The Operator Console needs JBoss and Java to be installed before it can be installed. Lastly, it’s just sometimes easier to jump down into custom automation code that Opalis calls instead of using a workflow object.

This all being said… Opalis does have its place. However, its place is more in the future vs. now. What I see Opalis becoming is an automation wrapper or automation middle man if you will. IT pros use its tools to write automation workflows that can plug into a number of different systems across the enterprise. These workflows then in turn use PowerShell to complete the defined automation tasks with everything controlled through Opalis. This is my vision.

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