Automating IT processes for virtual machines

IT process automation tools help tackle workflow challenges in virtual machine management, disaster recovery and server consolidation - and free up IT staff for higher-level virtualization projects.

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Andi Mann
Many organizations have discovered that virtualization has introduced several new management problems. Virtualization adds complexity to an environment with new technologies, new platforms, new vendors and new tools; all of which require new training and new skills. Unfortunately, a majority of organizations report that they simply do not have the sufficient skills to manage their virtual systems, which is a major roadblock to maintaining and expanding their virtual server deployments.

Others resort to using senior staffers for routine virtual machine (VM) management tasks that take them away from

value-adding projects such as new application deployments, server consolidation, data center moves or disaster recovery (DR) planning. In this tip, I'll examine how IT process automation (ITPA) tools can help streamline workflows in order to make your virtualized infrastructure run more smoothly.

Inherent risks with virtualization
Virtualization rapidly increases the speed of IT administration tasks. For example, in an upcoming research study, Enterprise Management Associates has found that system provisioning can be up to 240 times faster in a virtual environment than in a physical environment – and manual management simply cannot keep up. This agility can also create policy violations, compliance failures and other deployment errors, because it eliminates the checks and balances that hardware procurement, approval, manufacturing and installation previously imposed.

Virtualization can introduce other risks though. If junior admins are in over their heads without enough time to check approvals and configurations, along with nonexistent (or outdated) documentation to follow, mistakes are made, patches are forgotten, approvals are missed and configurations are fouled up. This can lead to system attacks, compliance and licensing problems, system downtime, and more.

One excellent solution to these concerns and problems is to automate these complex processes using IT process automation tools.

Provisioning for new VMs
The complete process of provisioning a VM is actually many different, connected tasks:

The request to provision a new VM comes in via your service desk system (e.g. Remedy), email or just a phone call.

The request recipient ensures that the request has been authorized by either assigning the request, or forwarding the email to a senior manager.

Once it is approved, the admin checks an asset register (maybe a spreadsheet, or an inventory tool like Microsoft SMS/Configuration Manager) to make sure you have a server that they can use.

The admin also checks the asset register to make sure they have the licenses they need for the OS, apps, database, etc., that they are going to deploy.

They check to make sure they have a viable VM image to clone, and must create one if they do not.

They then deploy the VM, using a point virtualization management tool (e.g. VirtualCenter).

They configure the VM, updating network settings, adding storage access, modifying security and adding the latest patches.

They update the service request or reply to the email, to let the requester know that their VM is up and running.

Finally, they go back and update the asset register (or notify SMS to re-discover the active environment).

So the entire process workflow looks like a little like this: Service Request → Approval → Asset Check → Check VM Image → Deploy VM → Configure VM → Update Service Request → Update Asset Register.

Implementing and using IT process automation tools
You probably already have some degree of task-based automation in your virtual infrastructure. Deploying or cloning a VM, maybe with tools or scripts; some patch management routines that will update a VM; scripts that can open and assign a trouble ticket; or asset tracking systems that can discover and inventory new VMs. You may even have some documentation or run-books that describe some of your processes – step-by-step descriptions of how to complete common administration activities like VM deployment, patch deployment, software updates, troubleshooting, etc.

IT process automation takes these common tools several steps further. ITPA is a software discipline that connects many individual tasks together, integrating multiple tools and disciplines, and orchestrates them into a complete end-to-end workflow that essentially is an automated version of your own administration processes.

If you examine the scenario presented in the sidebar to the left, you'll notice that there are branches in this workflow that I have not shown. If the new VM is not approved, the decision may need to be brought to a higher executive. If you don't have available licenses, maybe a request goes to procurement to buy another license pack. If you do not have all the configuration details you need, you may need to request them from the business unit that will be using the new VM. You may add an expiration date to the VM, and then come back to it in 90 or 120 days to decommission it – a completely new process involving a completely new set of notifications, approvals, verifications, escalations, documentation updates and technical tasks.

Using ITPA tools, you can automatically execute complex IT processes like this including triggers, conditional steps, approvals, data exchange, notifications and more. These tools can execute processes automatically, with or without human intervention. They will connect to other management tools (like a service desk, VirtualCenter or asset management), send and receive email, import and update spreadsheets, and even execute existing scripts. Senior staffs can define these complex processes once, then junior staffs can run them over and over without much training. They will run the right way every time, without mistakes and without missing steps. They will also run much faster than doing it manually because they can take out most of the human intervention.

Summary
ITPA can automate just about any complex process for virtual server management. It will automate processes in the physical environment too, so it is really a strategic tool, not just a virtual system management tool.

ITPA tools are available from a number of vendors – including BMC Software, CA, Enigmatec, HP, IBM, NetIQ, Novell, and Opalis.

If you find your own organization is being ineffective and non-compliant, running without sufficient documentation or skills, lacking enough time or staff to get the job done, or having difficulty managing the many IT processes required for virtual system management, you should look at ITPA tools and see what they might be able to do for your environment.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Andi Mann is a research director with the IT analyst firm Enterprise Management Associates (EMA). Andi has over 20 years of IT experience in both technical and management roles, working with enterprise systems and software on mainframes, midrange, servers, and desktops. Andi leads the EMA Systems Management research practice, with a personal focus on data center automation and virtualization. For more information, visit the EMA website

This was first published in January 2009

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