Automation has now firmly established itself as an absolute necessity for companies to survive and thrive in today’s global marketplace. With IT innovation continuing to hurtle at break-neck speed, automation is now a vital ingredient for success in modern times. In addition, the recent advances in virtualisation, microservices, containers and the drive towards software-based everything, is creating the ideal circumstances for automation to go from strength to strength and help enterprises realise their full potential.
While the scene may be set for automation to flourish, many organisations are still struggling to truly capitalise on its promise. The reasons are vast and are often down to a confused mix of ad-hoc scripts, APIs and proprietary tools. Matters are further complicated in a situation where some tasks are automated yet others remain manual, in addition to the heterogeneous stack of products used in current IT deployments. What then should we be doing to tap into the potential that automation offers in delivering real business value?
Focus on the value-add
There is no denying that when it comes to automation in the datacentre, there is so much more to be done. One area where there is contention is that of responsibility. As it currently stands, much of that responsibility is falling at the feet of the customer, with vendors shirking their responsibilities, offering little more than scripting by way of assistance. For those organisations that are employing automation tools, they tend to fall short of expectations, as they are more often than not designed for the more technically-minded specialists, shunning the business users.
The next challenge comes in the form of stitching together tools from multiple vendors. This approach is fraught with complexity, making complete, end-to-end, automation difficult to achieve in most data centres. However, a distinct lack of suitable alternatives regularly results in IT teams falling back on their old friend scripting to achieve their automation goals.
Little more than a programming language that can be used to create VMs and storage volumes, take snapshots and perform other common infrastructure management tasks, scripting can be hideously complicated to get right. Moreover, with different languages for each physical and virtual platform, putting together integrated workflows can be very challenging. While scripting might get you to your end goal, its complexity, susceptibility to errors and lack of scalability cannot be ignored in today’s complex cloud-centric environment.
It is important to remember that the strongest element of an automation solution is most likely the part you didn’t have to build. Focus here is key. Let the automation tools do the heavy lifting themselves, instead of continuously reinventing the wheel. Infrastructure management is a case in point, perfectly suited to automation, with little need to start from scratch time and time again.
There are simply very few exceptions to the rules when it comes to infrastructure management. Almost all organisations are faced with similar tasks: they must all build and power up VMs, allocate storage, establish secure network connections, balance workloads, the list goes on. These mundane tasks chew up a significant amount of time and resource. Why then utilise expensive specialist IT staff for such tasks, when ready-made automation tools can easily manage them? By unshackling your best assets – your staff – from the mundane, they can focus on innovating and building automations that add value to the business.
An evolution in infrastructure
Another consideration has to be the way that the data centre has evolved over the last few decades, from mere racks of physical servers and storage arrays to an interconnected network of virtual compute, storage and networking resources. More than that, infrastructure is increasingly layered and cloud centric, with hybrid cloud rapidly becoming the de-facto standard as enterprises across the board look to spread and balance IT workloads across a mix of on-premise and public cloud platforms.
Automation has to reflect and work with all these changes. It has to extend beyond the confines of the physical into - not just the virtual layer - but also the hybrid cloud, to work with applications and enable workflow automation and workload balancing regardless of the supporting technologies, whether on-premise or on the far side of the corporate firewall.
The miscellany of ad-hoc scripts, APIs and proprietary tools mostly in use today can’t do any of this. It requires a much more open and all-embracing approach based around tools able to work across hypervisors, containers, clouds, platforms and technologies regardless of vendor. It calls for automation tools that support industry standard APIs and protocols and which are able to pass information between infrastructure layers regardless of the supporting hardware, software or services, where it is located or who owns it.
Invisible should be the IT mantra
A key indicator that technology is working well, is when we simply don’t see it. If technology is a burden, we are all too aware of it. Automation lends itself well to this notion. It should not be something that is ‘built in’ in order to reach across the entire infrastructure; it should be seamless in operation across the hybrid cloud and virtually invisible to the end user.
Organisations should strive to deliver automation similar to the automation that drives public cloud platforms such as AWS and Azure. While they deliver applications and services on demand, balance workloads, and of course handle the supporting infrastructure, they do it under the radar, seamlessly and invisibly.
Automation has played a vital role in the success of the public cloud. While customers are huge fans of the public cloud, it also affords cloud vendors such as Amazon and Microsoft the ratio of just one IT generalist to tens of thousands of servers. Datacentre automation must now deliver the same capabilities, and at the same scale. Only then can enterprises put infrastructure to the back of their minds and focus on building the applications that matter.
Are you operating at that level of efficiency? If not, you need to look carefully at what is required to deliver better automation in your data centre and turn this necessity into a virtue with true business value.
Anjan Srinivas, Sr. Director, Product Management, Nutanix
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