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Workflow automation software showdown: Citrix, Microsoft and VMware

Workflow automation software is growing in popularity, but each product has its limitations. Find out how products from three major vendors stack up.

Workflow automation software has become quite common lately. Not long ago, Microsoft (quietly) released its latest offering for the System Center Operations Manager Suite of products, called System Center Orchestrator. VMware has had its own workflow automation software, vCenter Orchestrator, since late 2011, and Citrix's Workflow Studio has been available for years. There are other automation software choices, but let's look at how the big three compare.

All three of these products take a similar approach to automation, but with different terminology, processes and some limiting factors in scalability and use. And these products may include other pieces, such as workflow management, version control and application integration, but it's still all about enabling automation in the data center.

Workflow automation for all

Citrix Workflow Studio started in 2010 as a very difficult to use and obscure offering from Citrix that only caught the eye of IT developers. Citrix did not really market it to data center administrators at first, but quietly pushed it to those scripting and using the Citrix software development kit to perform small, automated processes.

As more infrastructure administrators learned and began using PowerShell, Workflow Studio quickly became something that those folks wanted to test. Several years ago, a presenter at a Small Business Computing conference fumbled through the installation process of a prerelease version of Workflow Studio. It was quite a bit of work to integrate it with his programming tools and was apparently frustrating even to the programmers in attendance. The product has evolved to a much more integrated and useful offering, but its flexibility is still limited, compared to that of Microsoft's Orchestrator. That limitation may be intentional. It is possible that Citrix didn't originally intend to make Workflow Studio a complete Orchestrator type of product for general administrators, but instead wanted a product for developers and programmers.

Integrated automation, but with a higher price

VMware introduced Orchestrator as an automation platform for vCenter, calling it VMware vCenter Orchestrator, implying that the product is directly tied to the vCenter management software. This type of integration blocks small IT shops without vCenter from using it. VMware has updated vCenter Orchestrator along the way to have even tighter integration with the vCenter client. VMware has recently expanded the product to focus more on the cloud aspect of its product line and has added a large library of predefined workflows. Like Workflow Studio's Citrix-only approach, vCenter Orchestrator is solely focused on VMware products and third-party integration partners. It can be installed as a virtual appliance (a delivery model that neither Microsoft nor Citrix has really grasped) or on a standard server install.

VMware states that it has "an open and flexible plug-in architecture," but it still does not allow management of its competitors' workflows or infrastructures. This could be a critical mistake, as more data centers adopt a multi-hypervisor approach. For more details on vCenter Orchestrator, try this book: Automating vSphere with VMware vCenter Orchestrator by Cody Bunch. It contains a wealth of helpful information and tutorials on how to use the product to its maximum potential.

Interoperability gives Microsoft an edge

Microsoft introduced its Microsoft Orchestrator with the System Center 2012 product line launch last year in a very low-key way. During launch events, Microsoft focused on new versions of its Virtual Machine Manager and Configuration manager product lines and kept the Orchestrator product peeking out from the shadows. It has since become a strong selling point of the System Center Suite.
Microsoft Orchestrator embraces the trend of moving to automated scripting and PowerShell and even adds multivendor interoperability, since it can handle VMware and Citrix workflows. It is also capable of managing multiple operating systems, which is a huge step for Microsoft.

VMware and Citrix have already embraced PowerShell as the de facto standard in scripting automation for their products and, since it is a Microsoft-created language, the 'Softies are taking advantage and integrating it all into a single product. Based on initial testing, it really has the potential to be a single pane of glass for all your automation needs. For more technical information, visit the TechNet Center on the topic and take a quick run through a Virtual Lab at the TechNet Virtual Labs site. The best resource for in-depth technical training on this and all the System Center technologies can be found at the Microsoft Virtual Academy site. (It's still mystifying that Citrix and VMware do not offer this type of virtual hands-on lab service.)

Automating just about everything in the data center can make admins' lives easier, leaving time to try out and learn about new things. Some IT folks feel that this type of automation is taking away from their administrative jobs and eliminating the need for hands-on manual intervention, reducing the need for their skills. But in fact it can be just the opposite; more highly skilled people will be needed to design and implement these complex workflows to ensure more error-free and self-healing automation in the future. Don't think of using products like these as a bad thing for your profession or career. Rather, think outside the box and imagine the opportunities.

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Which workflow automation product do you prefer?