IT automation offers host of conundrums

IT automation is a hot topic. Actually, it has been a hot topic for a long time. Gibbs Irregular Dan Saint-Andre points out that today’s “IT automation is little different from the batch jobs and job control of years past. Sadly, few of [today’s] scripting tools offer features that are on par with VAX/VMS DCL on a VAX-Cluster.”

Dan continued: “Equipped with automatic load balancing among the cluster members, a unified operator console utility and supporting tools, scripting tools to checkpoint recover, and restart batch scripts and other goodies, today’s automation could learn much from times past.”

Since those days, the concept of IT automation hasn’t changed much, as Dan pointed out. Today, systems can perform their own fault diagnosis and recovery, and virtualized servers and grid systems can manage their own configurations and workloads according to business rules, but these are really not all that different from what was used back in the ‘70s and ‘80s on mainframes.

But now that IT is, in many corporations, the foundation of all business processes, a lot of people have started to claim automation will transform the way we do IT. These IT believers are both right and wrong. They are right, because self-managing server systems will make a huge difference in how we manage them. They will be able to recover gracefully from problems with little and eventually no human interaction.

The IT automation believers are also right when they suggest that automation can free up IT labour by removing repetitive tasks. Some of the believers suggest this could reduce IT staffing and budgets. As great as that may sound (at least if you are in management), the believers are wrong, because at some point somebody, some human, has to be there to handle the unexpected situations that will always arise.

Now I believe that we will eventually develop machines that will first rival our thinking ability and then leave us in the cognitive dust, but that possibility is at least decades away. The reality is that for the foreseeable future — at least the next decade or two — human beings will still be making the decisions and fixing the disasters. But let’s consider how IT automation really works.

Automation provides a programmed framework that manages the operation of one or more applications or server systems to enable workflows and/or ensure continuity. More generally, this is about starting and stopping components and systems, monitoring their activities so that error conditions can be rectified as well as moving data around.

A big problem is that making automation work successfully requires expertise, and you can’t automate this kind of knowledge, because no two companies operate the same way. So, while there are aspects of automation that are generic, some kind of customization will always be required, which in turn requires expertise in business-process analysis. The consequence of this will be an increased demand for highly skilled IT workers.

Second, corporate needs change, because real businesses can’t be static. Again, to reorchestrate an IT automation system to handle modified workflows is something that can’t be done by anything but humans. When I polled the Gibbs Irregulars, one thing almost everyone agreed on was that IT automation, when it works, shifts the workload.

Irregular Ken Diliberto wrote: “Let’s automate the infrastructure more. That will keep me employed for the rest of my life.” 076076

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