Rise of the machines

Upstart vendors lead the charge in automating complex data-center processes

When Marvin Stone, CIO at New Century Title Insurance in San Diego, needed to improve the workflow for his company's residential refinance transaction process, he turned to automation software from Opalis, which enabled his staff to stop writing code and start putting their service-oriented architecture applications to use.


At New Century Title, each real estate transaction involves multiple parties that must compile financial, credit and property information in a limited time period. Stone's staff used Opalis Integration Server to build a "drag-and-drop" application, which the company prototyped without writing a single line of code. The new process sends incoming orders to personnel, updates the SQL Server database, alerts stakeholders and handles errors that occur -- all without human intervention.

Robots among us

"I don't want to have a lot of handwritten code, so we have one platform that enables us to build applications and automate tasks. We saved between $10,000 and $15,000 prototyping that one application through Opalis," Stone says. "Our goal is to have zero-contact response on some issues that we can remediate within Opalis."

Stone uses Opalis in concert with VMware's GSX Server in a Windows 2003 environment. The software installs on a dedicated server and works with third-party management tools and virtualization products via APIs. This allows IT managers to create tasks that will be carried out based on predefined triggers. Stone says with the SOA and virtualization his environment supports, automation is a must-have. "Our environment is so fluid in terms of the applications that we support that we need to automate many parts of what we do," Stone says.

Automation isn't new, but the way it's being used in today's data centers is. Software tools once responsible for running batch jobs, pinging network devices for availability and monitoring server use are now being called upon to automate multistep processes across IT domains.

Enterprise IT managers are looking to automation to keep up with the constant change in their complex data-center environments. Automation represents one of the few ways IT managers can introduce operational efficiencies. And the growing popularity of best practice such frameworks as the IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL) have network executives realizing that with standard processes in place, manual labor can be slashed when automation is added to the mix.

"IT automation has been promised forever, and in many cases, the technology has delivered, but only with basic, task-oriented functions," says David Williams, a research vice president at Gartner. "Today people regard automation as being more complex workflow automation based on cross-domain IT processes, something much more sophisticated than a bunch of scripts supporting a bunch of simple tasks."

See software run

The trend toward more automated operations has deep roots in best practices, industry watchers say. Today, automation vendors fall into a new product category dubbed run-book automation (RBA) by Gartner and data-center automation by others. The technology relies less upon software to perform specific tasks and more upon executing processes across multiple systems to carry out predefined workflows.

"RBA processes cover a wider range of IT operations-process automation, including change management, server provisioning and configuration, and storage provisioning," Williams explains. "RBA tools have the ability to monitor how workflows are executed and provide full reporting on ITIL workflow execution and even workflow efficiencies, including when they ran, who ran them, how long they took to run, if they failed and why they failed."

To achieve this type of automation, such vendors as Enigmatec, Network Automation, Opalis and RealOps took a generic approach, building workflow and orchestration engines which enable the products to carry out tasks across third-party tools. The software doesn't care if HP, Microsoft or IBM owns the technology under the covers, experts say.

"These tools can be seen as a vendor-agnostic communication vehicle between IT domains and the service desk," says Evelyn Hubbert, a senior analyst with Forrester Research. "This type of technology connects the silos of IT by enabling cross-domain processes and can take many mundane tasks out of IT managers' daily routine."

Consider RealOps. The company's Automation Management Platform (AMP) allows customers to integrate other systems into one operations management tool by sitting on top of existing management products and collecting data. The data is aggregated, normalized and correlated against AMP's predefined activity library, which lets the software identify whether the data matches a predefined automated action in AMP's library. If so, the tool kicks off the automation. If a server doesn't respond to predefined standards, the software will generate a trouble ticket.

"RealOps does the integration of processes and workflows easily. The software does high-level scripting and builds complex workflows around ad hoc or emerging business needs," says Bryan Doerr, CTO at Savvis in Herndon, Va. Savvis uses the technology in its data center to quickly address time-consuming tasks. For instance, when servers needed to be updated for Daylight Savings Time, RealOps software enabled Savvis to quickly update its patching process and automate it.

A virtual must-have

Automation and virtualization seem to go hand in hand for many IT managers.

Paul Anderson, CEO of Novacoast, an IT professional services company in Santa Barbara, Calif., used Novell ZenWorks Orchestrator software to manage the company's migration from the VMware to the Xen platform. The software not only helped the migration; it's also helping Anderson stay on top of problems that arise in the virtual environment.

"As virtual environments grow, it becomes more of a chore to manage them. You get into a situation where you don't even know where a virtual server is running anymore," Anderson says. "The more you leverage virtualization, the more you realize there are management issues, and you need a way to automate some of that."

Novacoast moved from a decentralized Microsoft Windows environment to a centralized Red Hat Linux data center, with each physical server housing between four and five virtual machines. Anderson says the change helped save the company money but required an update in management software. ZenWorks Orchestrator helps his staff automate the allocation of virtual resources based on business needs by understanding the resources available and the workloads running on them. Using centralized server software and distributed software agents, Orchestrator is able to distribute workloads across multiple machines to maximize available resources.

"Technically, you can do virtualization without something like Orchestrator, but you are so much better off with it," Anderson says.

In fact, virtualization vendors are exploring more systems-management technologies to round out their products suites. Industry watchers speculate that market leader VMware will acquire automation technology, while Microsoft is working hard to augment its existing management portfolio.

"It is too much to do manually when you starting provisioning virtual resources and need to manage resources and performance," says George Hamilton, director of Yankee Group's Enabling Technologies Enterprise group. "VMware is aggressively targeting systems management in the data center because the vendor realizes how important automated management and provisioning is in virtual environments."

SOA all the way

Managing complex applications also requires IT managers to delve more into automation. For companies depending upon data collected at the transaction level, automated transaction management is critical.

For Scott Metzger, CTO of TransUnion Interactive in San Luis Obispo, Calif., OpTier's CoreFirst product enables his staff to get visibility into his application environment and the relationships among components and services. With SOA applications in place, Metzger says services can reuse components and optimize services, but at the same time, the loosely coupled nature of the applications represents a management nightmare for IT operations staff.

"The thing that is very exciting about SOA, that you can re-use these run-time components, is also the thing that causes a big operational impact. You really need more sophisticated tools to understand how these components are being run," Metzger says.

CoreFirst requires IT managers to install a central data repository on a dedicated server and to distribute agents on managed Web, database and application servers. IT managers must set the policies they want the software to use via a Web-based interface, which also serves as a management interface and reporting tool. Once deployed, CoreFirst discovers how applications traverse the network and use the managed devices, and the agents monitor the transaction workloads on the servers.

For example, Metzger says he gives priority to the applications supporting TransUnion's annual credit-report service for its customers. CoreFirst agents monitor the workload on the servers used by the prioritized applications; when transactions compete for compute resources, the agents allocate resources to the higher-priority applications.

"The complexity in the environment grows as you get more services. If the software can discover that rather than having someone defining it, then you can get ahead of the changes that may impact business," he says. "We can automatically better tune our environment to delivery optimized services knowing the usage models and resource availability."

Trend takes hold

As niche players take the data-center automation market by storm, expect to see veteran management vendors and established automation players revamp their offerings to address the growing customer demand.

Opsware last year acquired run-book automation innovator iConclude and plans to use its OpsForce platform to round out its network- and server-automation tools. BladeLogic, for its part, licenses RealOps software in its Orchestration Manager to help customers automate IT processes around change and configuration management. And industry watchers expect to see the big four management vendors -- BMC, CA, HP and IBM -- dip their toes into the market either through acquisition, partnerships or internal product development.

"If you look at the big four, they don't offer that much automation around IT operations," Forrester's Hubbert says. "These automation vendors will challenge the big four in that customers will start asking them how their software can take work out of IT operations for them."

For instance, CA, at its recent user conference, hinted at plans to deliver what it called intelligent automation using XML across CA and third-party products. And IBM, which has long touted its autonomic computing initiative, is expected to start introducing operational automation technologies through integrations with Opalis.

Gartner estimates in 2007 about 35% of IT managers will start to invest in such automation technologies and that number is expected to grow as existing implementations deliver incremental successes. But the promise of automation isn't necessarily a human-less environment. Today's IT automation tools promise to make supporting the business faster, more accurate and less expensive for many organizations.

"The thinking is that these technologies can drive a more agile infrastructure and enable IT to more easily align with the business," says Stephen Elliot, a senior analyst at IDC. "Ultimately whether it's your IT culture or your infrastructure, if you are static you are in trouble. You have to become flexible and agile and automation can help do that by lowering costs and driving efficiencies into daily processes."


Next story: Insurer aims for automation >

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