So what is the difference between Automation and Autopilot in IT?

The term IT Automation has become a real buzzword over the last couple of years. With the economic meltdown still hanging over our heads, previously used potentials such as outsourcing and off shoring being a disillusionment , many IT managers have come to the conclusion that it is about time to deal with improving the “Run the Business” part of their IT themselves if sustainable results are to be expected. This little article will take you through the usage of the new “Automation buzzword” and will eventually show a solution on how to really automate IT operatioFragilens.

The more IT turns away from being voodoo to being a business the more IT follows the idol of “the old economy´s producing industries” and this brings the term automation into focus. Normally this means giving a good tool to the IT operators (administrators) to make their job easier or to control their work. In other words the IT guys are buying a great shiny new hammer that will drive a nail into wood with two blows as compared to the ten the old hammer required. Or they install an assembly line that take an IT issue from one expert to the next until all of them have contributed their 10 cents to the final result. Of course IT cannot use such old style terms and this is why terms like Data Center Automation or Automated Provisioning describe nothing more than the shiny new tool and terms like IT Process Management or Operation Orchestration represent the optimized factory processes or assembly line approach.

But is this really IT automation?

Well if IT was the delivery of completely standardized products (service catalogue) and their different varieties this claim would be true. But most of the effort in IT operations today is consumed by dealing with non standard issues. This is because a long time before the shiny new tools were available, smart administrators were automating repetitive jobs in scripts, jobs and by using other neat methods – much less transparent, rarely reusable, but still automated. The unpredictable part of the administrative workload is generated when a “working system” (a fully functional productive IT environment) is changed following a client’s instructions or when a previously unknown challenge pops out of the blue and has to be dissected by several experts before it can be resolved. If we shift our focus from the workload created from such unpredictable tasks to the impact their time consuming resolution has on business, we can see that exactly these unpredictable tasks are the major causes for quality problems and can sustainably influence availability and performance over time.

These unpredictable efforts and the impact they have on business performance are not addressed by implementing standard IT automation approaches (installing a new tool or improving process controls). These tools are certainly worth their while and are responsible for ensuring today’s administrators and their managers can just about handle the massive growth of issues they have to deal with each year, but they do not address the basic problem of applying expert knowledge to unpredictable issues.

Looking at the IT industry in general and IT operations in particular, one must be reminded of the gold rush. Not only is the number of IT workers constantly increasing – despite ongoing crisises – the suppliers for this industry and their organic growth are in full swing. And this is why the established suppliers like to sell new shovels to the IT gold diggers – so long as this is possible. Only when the administrators realize that it is impossible to deal with their workload – not to speak of their personal ambition of doing something interesting and creative in IT – will big suppliers wake up and try to change their products. So why is the basic problem not being resolved? Well, quite simply because selling shovels (new tools for IT operation) is still big business and actual change is a big challenge.

Comparing IT automation with industrial automation is for the main part invalid. One should look at automation of IT operations from a different angle. Industrialization in the IT sector is moving forward every day, but since the major part of work delivered in this sector is virtual or at least intellectual, this new angle of looking at IT operations will have to focus on mental abilities like knowledge. Each and every one of us knows a machine that was built do deal with exactly such a challenge. This would be the autopilot in an airplane or other vehicles. This device (by the way first designed in 1914) has to create a result (keep a specific heading, etc.) even when unpredictable and unknown events and issues occur. It is the goal of this machine to keep the result intact as long as possible and react to change in its environment dynamically. Every one of us trusts these machines and these machines do nothing but take and execute decisions that would normally be taken and executed by a human. Only when the autopilot no longer knows what to do or is facing a problem that can only be resolved by innovation, creativity or even emotion, the real (well educated and experienced) creative human expert is contacted.

And this is exactly what IT operations should be like!

We have been working on and with such a machine for more than ten years now to solve workload overflow in our IT service delivery. With an 80% level of automation when dealing with standard environments (OS, network, etc.) and a 30% level of automation when dealing with individual applications, this approach has reached a satisfactory level of maturity. On top of actually eliminating manual intervention and giving our experts the time to focus their knowledge and creativity on interesting and completely new challenges, the faster reaction time of an IT autopilot are noteworthy because they reduce the business impact of upcoming issues. This results in a win-win-win situation for our customers, our staff and our company. Our customers get a better service at a better price, our employees have more interesting tasks to deal with and our company has a better margin.

By looking at the autopilot concept for IT operations it becomes obvious that a new angle of looking at a problem brings new and innovative solutions. Because in an overcrowded gold digging area you can have the best shovels on earth and still have no competitive advantage. An advantage would only be created by finding a new area to dig in or by creating a completely new method to mine the gold. This kind of a new approach is exactly what IT Autopilot for operations is. Looking at other industries and experiences from other sectors has created the difference between IT automation and autopilot for IT operations.

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