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Automating business for Covid-19 continuity

(Image credit: Image Credit: StartupStockPhotos / Pixabay)

The Covid-19 pandemic has triggered more change than any other event we lived through so far. Some industry leaders have already said that their customers went through more digital transformation in the last two months than in the last two years. IT automation is one of the key technologies fuelling that digital transformation. 

Automation is essential during lockdown

The current crisis has put the business need for automation in the spotlight. Without semi-automated warehouses and distribution centres, it would be impossible for businesses like Amazon and Ocado to get essential goods to consumers at the scale those goods are being purchased. No ecommerce solution was ever designed to serve an entire country suddenly working from home and shopping online at any time of the day. Without automation, even the most considered and prescient architecture would have collapsed.

It’s not just the online shopping that was able to sustain the unprecedented demand thanks to automation. The sudden transition to a 100 per cent work-from-home productivity model for most corporations around the world generated unforeseeable loads on telecommunication links, video-conferencing systems, trading platforms, cloud storage solutions, streaming services, online gaming metaverses, and many more.

The capability to serve more concurrent users than during a major public holiday, like Christmas, every day of the week, would have been impossible without the scalability that automation enables.

Automation has also supported that very transition to a 100 per cent work-from-home productivity model. Without automation, IT operations and security teams would not have been able to install VPN clients across millions of laptops, tablets and smartphones in a reasonable time to maintain a reasonable productivity level for the remote workers.

How to get a return on automation investment

While the global situation demands urgency, it’s important to clarify that IT automation won’t provide a rapid return on investment rapidly if your organisation tries to automate a complex business process or operation all at once. Automating small tasks allows you to gain experience in select automation solutions (in turn helping to build your team’s confidence), and it will allow you to develop a foundation of automated processes that can become the building blocks of more complex automation projects. When aggregated together, all the small tasks you automate away can represent a significant time-save for your organisation and will let you focus attention on the bigger projects.

Another way to accelerate the return on the automation investment is by paying special attention to the skill levels necessary to master the automation solution of choice. Some automation languages tools are much easier to write, understand, and troubleshoot than actual development code, requiring smaller investments in sourcing or developing the skills necessary to operate the automation solution.

Choosing an easy-to-understand automation language means that more people in your organisation can use the automation solution in their respective domains of expertise compared to a few highly skilled and expensive-to-hire professionals. Similarly, an easy-to -understand language implies a milder learning curve and a faster transition from education to application.

How to cope with human errors

No matter how easy it is to understand, automation is still prone to human error. The best way to mitigate the risk is by applying some of the best practices we have today in software development to the effort of writing and maintaining automation workflows.

For example, peer reviewing the automation workflow allows IT organisations to appraise the design and efficiency of the approach you have chosen to automate a certain process. While today this is a manual effort, in the future, maybe, we’ll be able to make it more effective thanks to artificial intelligence and the collective wisdom of an entire user base.

Another example is the implementation of a version control system for your automation workflows. Especially when automation is impacting mission-critical systems or a large number of devices, IT organisations will want to have a reliable way to track changes and revert to a safe version of their automation workflows.

How to accelerate adoption 

One of the most popular use cases for IT automation, and a starting point for many organisations, is the provisioning of computing resources and the configuration of operating systems and applications. However, modern automation solutions can address a significantly broader range of use cases.

Some automation engines can be used to configure network devices (both hardware and software) in seconds and minutes, cutting down the time it takes between deploying and making sure that hardware is fully integrated into day-to-day business. Similarly, automation can help reconfigure entire networks, enormously simplifying complex scale operations like mergers and acquisitions.

In the last couple of years, automation has also started expanding in the IT security domain, where certain automation solutions are able to integrate with a wide range of security products and coordinate the activities of security operation teams across them. The triage of suspicious activities, the investigation of a potential cyberattack, or the execution of an articulated remediation plan after suffering a breach, are all activities that can be orchestrated through the use of automation.

How to develop the expertise

If your organisation has limited experience in automating IT processes, the knowledge of your industry peers will prove invaluable. Many automation platforms have online marketplaces hosting an abundance of workflows to automate the provisioning of the most common applications and the most typical operations in a large enterprise. Review the processes already automated, and evaluate if and how they can be easily applied to your IT environment.

Some automation platforms, especially if they derive from popular open source projects, also offer large supporting communities. The community is the best place to access the experience necessary to evaluate the details of your automation initiative. Whether it’s tactical input into how you’re executing a particular automation task, or strategic input into what processes you should prioritise, communities can often provide an impartial source of feedback on your approach.

Many businesses are hastening their approach to automation amidst this crisis. However, this isn’t just a quick fix solution. The investment you make in automation now will boost your productivity and innovation well after the end of the pandemic. Automation is now essential for business continuity, and will remain a must-have technology for IT organisations well after this crisis ends.

Alessandro Perilli is the General Manager for Management Strategy, Red Hat (opens in new tab)

Ex-Gartner Research Director in the Gartner for Technical Professionals division, Alessandro Perilli is the GM, Cloud Management Strategy at Red Hat. He is responsible for the overall strategy in Red Hat's cloud management business unit and develops the strategy around all other upcoming management initiatives across the company.