Thursday, February 5, 2009

Is it safe to discuss automating your data center yet?

I've been at Cassatt for over 3 years now and during that time one of words that I've wanted to use the most in describing what our software does is "automation." The only problem: it's a four letter word for IT. Until now. Maybe.

In the strictest sense of the word, Cassatt's software is all about automation. The goal of the software is to run your data center more efficiently by doing most of the work for you. It balances the resources you have (your hardware, virtual servers, applications, networks) with the application demand on those resources using policies you set -- and it does the balancing and re-balancing automatically. You end up with a big pool of compute power that gets called into service to support your apps only as needed, without someone having to manually adjust anything.

(By the way, you should probably be saying about now: "hey, that sounds like a cloud, but one that uses the stuff you already have inside your own data center" -- but that's another topic altogether.)

So why be timid about using the word "automation," then, if it's accurate? Because, in fact, it's something that IT folks have proven to be very gun-shy about. It's a concept that, frankly, doesn't have a lot of fans. As an example, the InfoWorld article by Eric Knorr debating the legitimacy of internal clouds also expressed some of this skepticism about automation.

Why is everyone afraid of automation?

From our experiences with customers, there are probably three reasons. First, IT and data center operations groups fear change. And with good reason. Their job is to make sure stuff works. Their motto usually is: if it's working, don't mess with it.

Second, automation itself requires a great deal of trust. You are replacing what a thinking person has been doing with a set of code. An IT ops person is going to want to see it working in action before he or she feels good about that. It's the way these guys are wired. (See previous paragraph for the reason.)

Third, vendors have shot themselves in the foot repeatedly by overpromising and underdelivering. (This was Eric Knorr's point noted above.) When things don't live up to the hype and fail to work as promised, successful IT ops folks write that down in their little black book of "see, I told you sos."

However, the bad economy may be changing all that. The 451 Group and others deeply involved in this space (including us here at Cassatt) have been noting that change may be afoot. Why? Automation is something that higher-up execs begin to think about in a downturn, especially when lay-offs are happening all around them. Wouldn't it be great to be able to do more stuff with fewer people? Or worse: now that we have fewer people, how do we keep the lights on in the data center?

In the Great Recession, automating how you run your data center may be something you need to consider in order to survive.

Of course, there are several angles on what "automation" actually is. There's the HP/Opsware and BMC/BladeLogic automation, which sets up configurations of your software and apps on your servers. And then there's automating the run-time of your data center -- the day-to-day running of your IT systems after you have them configured -- where a huge percentage of your operational expenses go, like Cassatt does.

Either way, it's smart to get ahead of this. It's always a good idea to be one of the folks helping to push forward change rather than clinging to the current business-as-usual plans. Especially when business-as-usual might actually mean going-out-of-business. Or at least an extended "vacation" for some of your IT staff.

The thing that got me thinking about all this was a podcast that Mike Vizard of eWeek did with Cassatt CEO Bill Coleman this week about how data centers are run, why it has been so hard for IT to adopt automation to help them out, and how we might get out of this "rut of complacency."

The main problem running data centers, said Bill, "is not scale; it's complexity. We've had a good run with virtualization and data center consolidation, but they've attacked the scale problem and in doing so have added to the complexity problem. The issue going forward is that if we don't attack this, we'll get beyond human scale. I don't think there's any way to do that without automating the operations part, doing for data centers what the telephone switching system did for the telephone system."

So how do company IT departments begin to make these changes? "The only way to do this is an evolutionary process, not a revolutionary process," said Bill. "And I think we are seeing the beginning of that with cloud computing, both internally and externally."

You can listen to the whole podcast here. Total running time is about 18 minutes.

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