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admins are in over their heads without enough time to check approvals and configurations, along with nonexistent (or outdated) documentation to follow, mistakes are made, patches are forgotten, approvals are missed and configurations are fouled up.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.
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.
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
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