Automation challenges have companies hesitating

It seems like IT automation is becoming de rigueur in data centers everywhere, but certain automation challenges such as a steep learning curve mean it isn't right for every enterprise.

VMware has been a runaway hit because it enabled enterprises to do more work via software rather than manually. Since virtualization took hold, businesses have been searching for other ways to streamline the process of allocating system resources. As these tools reach new heights, a question arises: "Has automation gone too far?" In some cases, yes. Beneficial though it may be, there are some significant automation challenges.

Once upon a time, data center technicians spent days -- sometimes even weeks -- configuring new systems. IT professionals were hands-on, installing hardware, running cables, dealing with physical platforms and managing environments based on standard operating procedures, predefined event triggers and alarms.

Starting with virtualization and continuing to other forms of IT automation, enterprises have tried to simplify the process. Here, the virtualization and hypervisor layers play important roles in the process. They sit and act as the bridge to data center resources. Automation and orchestration tools directly integrate with the virtual layer to better control resources, virtual services delivery and the virtual workloads themselves.

Moving beyond a single blade

Eventually, vendor specific tools such as VMware vRealize Automation and Microsoft Azure Stack improved the process. Nowadays, data center administrators no longer configure individual blades; admins only need to insert a new blade and let the server automation software take over. As high-density computing takes root in the data center, admins can get multiple VMs running in as little as 15 minutes.

As a result, automation has become common in data centers large and small. "Automation and orchestration are the heart of modern, efficient data center operations," said Mary Johnston Turner, research vice president, Enterprise Systems Management Software at market research firm IDC. "Whether provisioning bare-metal or virtual servers, deploying middleware and applications, or pooling resources dynamically across enterprise data centers, most IT organizations see automation playing a vital role."

Automation has done more than allocate resources. An admin can integrate security policy, user control and application automation into hypervisors. As clouds take shape, the process of integrating those resources with traditional data center applications is underway.

Introducing new automation challenges

But is all of this automation necessary? Probably not. These tools are complex and take time to understand, deploy and maintain. If a company has only a few systems -- say 10 or fewer -- then a high level of automation may not be needed, said Bill Kleyman, vice president of Strategy and Innovation at MTM Technologies Inc.

Also, there are a number of new automation challenges, many revolving around personnel issues. Technicians need to be trained on the new systems. They have to understand how to configure the software and any logical connections that come from dynamically distributing system resources across multiple platforms.

As the system takes on more responsibilities, what do the system administrators do? These employees need to develop new skill sets. According to Kleyman, the new emphasis moves them away from technical skills to more business knowledge and working the departments to determine how IT can support the organization.

Writing a new chapter in virtualization

As roles evolve, business processes need to be written. Support roles change as the system takes on first line tasks and IT pros move up the ladder. Companies must ensure qualified technicians are available for help if problems arise and are not too busy working on other projects, such as outlining application enhancements.

System management becomes more complex. Front line technicians move a step away from system innards. If something goes wrong, they have less visibility into system performance. Since the jobs are no longer closely tied to distinct systems, recreating workflows becomes more challenging. As a result, firms need management tools that monitor virtual interactions.

Finally, it may not make sense to upgrade some legacy servers. Their hardware and software infrastructure may need to be upgraded significantly in order to support the new automation functions, and that cost may be prohibitive. Consequently, the business will need to support the systems the old fashioned way, with little automation.

Technology has been evolving at a rapid clip, and more system management processes are being automated. Companies are able to deploy new resources faster than ever before, but automation is not a panacea, so firms need to carefully evaluate where it does and does not makes sense in their organization.

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