Automating IT infrastructure amid COVID-19
The pandemic and the resulting economic downturn has made the business case for IT automation clearer than ever and it continues to prove especially important for building resilience in our supply chains. Without extensive automation, it wouldn’t be possible for essential goods from online retailers to get into the hands of consumers at the scale and speed we currently need.
Likewise, automation has supported businesses across many industries in transitioning to remote working, which has proven essential to supply chain continuity amid the crisis. For example, it has allowed operations and security teams to install VPN clients across millions of remote worker’s devices, enabling a smoother and safer transition to a work-from-home model.
New contexts for automation
One of the first and most common use cases for IT automation is in the configuration of computing resources and operating systems, and the provisioning of line-of-business applications. From there, IT automation has evolved to address a significant broader spectrum of processes and tasks. For example, today, some automation engines can be used to set up network devices like routers and switches, rapidly cutting down the time it takes to integrate hardware into business functions like warehouses digitalisation or freight tracking.
Automation can also serve the needs of cybersecurity professionals in unexpected, new ways. Today, CISOs can use certain IT automation solutions to integrate a variety of security products in their portfolio, and to orchestrate how those products jointly perform a triage investigation or an attack remediation. The increased speed in addressing a cyber attack that IT automation can provide is invaluable for a security operations team, often understaffed and overwhelmed by the amount of alerts that a large IT enterprise environment normally generates.
How to approach automation
Automating business processes and operations that have been carried on for years or decades in a manual way can be intimidating or discouraging. One way to address that complexity is to break a big process down into multiple small, more manageable tasks, and focus on those ones that are the easiest to automate; the proverbial low hanging fruit.
Adopting this approach in a disciplined way, an IT organisation can eventually build the foundation necessary to automate its operations. It’s not just a matter of having the right pieces in the right place. This approach helps build the experience in automation and the team’s confidence, which is necessary to succeed.
As an additional benefit, by the time you approach the largest projects, your team should be at the point where they realize and appreciate the value of infrastructure and process standardisation, which enormously helps any automation project. In fact, while standardisation is a critical building block for automation at scale, attempting a massive standardisation before learning how to automate even the simpler tasks can often lead to project failure.
Appointing an internal chief automation architect to have overall responsibility of the automation project is paramount to success. Without someone very familiar with the many processes that govern your organisation, you will lack the oversight necessary to use automation strategically, rather than just as a tactical tool.
How to develop your expertise
If your organisation doesn't have a great deal of experience in automating IT processes, it’s perfectly appropriate to turn to your industry peers for knowledge. Many automation platforms have online marketplaces, which host a vast array of workflows to automate common tasks and applications. Take the time to review the workflows that others have already contributed, and evaluate whether they’re applicable to your IT environment.
Some automation platforms, especially if they derive from popular open source projects, also play host to large communities, which can provide a great network for support and advice. Interact with these communities to discover what is the real total cost of ownership and learning curve for these platforms, and what are the best practices to integrate them into your operations. There are many other organisations in your position, so pooling knowledge is a very effective way to help make this transition.
Businesses have continued to adopt automation during the pandemic as a way to support business continuity, and this has been particularly crucial for logistics and supply chain companies. But it’s important to note that this is far from a temporary trend; automation has been one of the propellers of digital transformation well before COVID-19 and will continue to serve as a vital technology for the industry’s IT operations well after the crisis ends.
By Alessandro Perilli, the GM of Management Strategy at Red Hat