All about automation

Automating your IT operations is a trick that creates obvious benefits. In this article, we explain how data center automation can help an entire enterprise

Some organizations and vendors are looking toward cross-domain IT processes. This is longer-term efforts due to organizational politics and cultural barriers that must be dealt with. But there is still a lot that data center pros can do to automate management within their server domain.

Getting started with server automation

Although the word "automation" may strike fear in the hearts of some administrators. The term "automation" actually represents a wide-ranging progression of operational capabilities; from simple, low level task automation through complex operational processes. Automation must be deployed with a level of certainty that it will do what is intended. This is why testing and validation are important steps in deployment.

Truth be told, it's much easier to implement automation at the infrastructure or server level because server administrators have full control over the server infrastructure and possess all of the necessary domain expertise. How does a system administrator get started using automation for the first time? First of all, you can start automating simple, repetitive tasks that are easy to document, implement, test, verify and trust before using the automation more broadly.

A system administrator could start by setting up something like stopping and restarting a server or process, or creating a set of diagnostic commands that they could launch when a problem arises. For example, if a user calls to say that their PC isn't working, a series of tasks to check the problem could be launched, i.e. ping the device, if no response then ping the server it's attached to. It could be more complex than that if preferred.

Although the sequence of actions will be automatically performed once it is evoked, administrators are unlikely to launch this automatically at first. But they could launch it manually, and once they trust the process and if it makes sense, they could launch it automatically in response to a pre-defined error condition.

There are different degrees of automation, and the level depends on the comfort level of administrators with automation and what makes sense for given situations.

This alone can relieve administrators from the many lower level tasks that voraciously consume their time every day. Once these tasks are codified in an automated process, the time savings for administrators adds up quickly. Alternatively, these automated tasks can be delegated to less skilled staff because the "experts" have codified the steps that need to be done.

This frees up time for skilled administrators that can be redeployed to higher value activities. In other words, administrators can refocus their time on activities that demonstrate value, i.e., by resolving issues that can't be automated because they require human intervention and decision making. Or they can use their time delivering new capabilities that are leading edge and valuable to the business.

Remember, automation isn't an all or nothing proposition. Selectively use automation where it makes the most sense and gives you the most value at the level of complexity that you are comfortable with. Look for and take advantage of automation that vendors are building into their solutions. Many management vendors are embedding automation-oriented capabilities in their offerings, some of which are obvious, while others are subtle. Some include pre-built best practices templates to enable rapid deployment, while others deliver automated features. It's an easy alternative to figuring it all out on your own.

Automation vendor offerings

Following are a few examples of vendor automation capabilities. As I mentioned above, there are a wide range of available automation capabilities: provisioning, configuration, power/heat management, monitoring, performance tuning, capacity, troubleshooting, administrative processes and more. The examples below are just a sample.

Solutions like Opalis and RealOps provide a platform for designing, integrating and implementing operational run book processes. They allow hierarchical process design that reuse lower level operational processes to create more complex composite processes if needed. With built in features to assist in building automated processes, run book automation makes it easier to create and maintain existing operational processes and integrate with existing management tools. Additionally, users can develop new automated processes with pre-built best practices.

If server power usage and cooling requirements are a concern, HP recently announced Insight Power Manager, which measures and regulates HP server power usage. It provides actual power and heat information that can be used to understand power and cooling headroom in a rack. But most interesting is its ability to automatically decrease the processor clock speed during periods of lower processor demand. This saves power and decreases heat output without adversely affecting performance.

When processor demand goes above 80%, Insight Power Manager automatically resets it to full processor clock speeds to keep up with the higher demands. Not only does this help administrators manage server rack density by managing power consumption and heat output, there's also potential dollar savings from power conservation, particularly in large data center environments.

Setting server thresholds for alerting is best described as part guesswork, part experience and part trial and error. Accurately setting thresholds is a balancing act: set it too high and you won't know that you have a problem until it's too late; set it too low and your console is filled with false alarms. Netuitive SI dynamically sets thresholds based on statistical analysis and correlation methods that "learn" the normal behavior of the server and detects abnormal behavior. As your operating environment changes, the server thresholds are automatically maintained.

These are just a small sample of available server automation capabilities in management products. The breadth and depth of automation-oriented solutions are increasing every day. Although it's not magic, server automation can feel like it to administrators. And couldn't we all use some of that?

About the author: Audrey Rasmussen has over 28 years of IT experience. She served as vice president at Enterprise Management Associates, a systems engineer at IBM, and co-authored the Network World Fusion Network and Systems Management newsletter for several years. Audrey is currently an analyst at Ptak, Noel & Associate.

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