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Understanding IT Automation: Benefits and Examples

Today’s IT, DevOps and security pros have a tough job: constantly solving problems, maintaining security, handling end user requests, handling configuration, provisioning and deprovisioning and delivering and updating critical apps are just a few of the things that keep them busy.

A lot of this stuff, let’s face it, is pure grunt work. But it doesn’t have to be that way, nor should it. Rather than manual, error-prone work, IT, development and security tasks can be automated. This not only greatly simplifies IT work, but guarantees these tasks are handled error-free by harnessing automation, often in the form of workflows. Instead of enduring endless tedium, these vexing manual activities can be directly mapped and turned into automated workflows. This process automation reduces human error and delegates and automates complex tasks that optimize IT staffers’ time.

What is IT Automation?

IT automation at its most basic level replaces manual IT processes and tasks with operations that take place automatically. Automation is most often applied to processes that are repeated often, such as configuring an end user device or server, or remediating commonly found errors. With IT automation, the practice is first established and perfected as a manual operation, and these steps are then turned into an automated process or workflow.

IT automation can be used for very simple processes, but steps can also be daisy chained to perform complex tasks with perfection. A higher level of IT automation is where processes such as IT deployments are invoked and performed autonomously based upon certain triggers or end user behaviors.

The IT Automation Movement

IT automation has countless benefits, which is why even those that have not yet fully embraced it are definitely moving towards it, as Gartner found.

“Eighty-five percent of infrastructure and operations (I&O) leaders that do not currently have any full automation expect to become more automated in the next two to three years, according to a new survey by Gartner, Inc. Gartner predicts that by 2025, 70% of organizations will implement structured automation to deliver flexibility and efficiency, an increase from 20% of organizations in 2021,” Gartner automation research discovered.

The benefits of automation are difficult to resist. “Automation is essential for I&O to scale for the rising demands of digital business,” said Yinuo Geng, VP, Gartner. “I&O automation technologies can support IT in enabling speed to market, increasing business agility, ensuring compliance with security and regulatory requirements and optimizing service costs.”

DevOps and IT pros, who are largely responsible for infrastructure deployment, are among those most likely to adopt automation.

The survey found I&O is most often using automation within deployment domains. Here is the percentage of IT function moving towards IT automation:

  • Application deployment (47%)
  • I&O workload automation (43%)
  • End-user device deployment (41%).

Gartner further found that 90% of those that applied automation to application deployment found that automation delivered value. “Automating deployment activities can help reduce friction at the intersection of I&O and its consumers,” said Melanie Freeze, Senior Principal, Research, Gartner. “The rise of DevOps, Agile and site reliability engineering has also led to increased automation within operational domains like monitoring and incident resolution, but it can be more difficult to justify investments due to more indirect returns.”

IT Automation Benefits

Efficiency: It goes without saying that anything that can be automated, rather than being done manually, by definition improves efficiency. IT automation relieves IT professionals from performing often menial tasks, freeing them to work on more strategic and competitive advantage producing endeavors.

Error Reduction: “Automation also eliminates human errors by removing manual tasks and freeing up team members to do what they do best: adding value through their expertise, not mere grunt work,” the Chef Managing DevOps Complexity Through Automation blog explained. 

Security: Misconfiguration and mistakes are a huge security threat. By automating processes that are proven to be effective and safe, these threats are eliminated.

Compliance: Nearly all IT related compliance regulations surround security and its counterpart which is data privacy. Compliance processes ensure that the environment is secure and the data is safe from prying eyes or data leakage. Once these processes have been perfected, they can be executed flawlessly via IT automation.

How Does IT Automation Work?

IT automation has been around for decades, albeit in lower-level forms. A lot of early automation happened through batch files and macros. Early workflows represented a more complex approach to automating IT functions.

IT automation has risen to new heights. Today, it is often based on code that executes actions specified by an expert and what those actions are and how they are to be properly taken. Sometimes, this automation is applied based upon specific needs such as a new device or virtual machine that needs to be configured or provisioned. Some automations are time specific, such as running reports at a scheduled time or backing up servers during off hours when the network is less busy.

“The first step is to find common IT and dev tasks, understand them, then automate. Many application development lifecycle tasks can be automated, including testing, building, security and monitoring,” the Chef Managing DevOps Complexity Through Automation blog argued. 

Complex automations are often created by combining multiple scripts or bits of code into elaborate, well defined IT operations. This code is often in the form of scripts including the wildly popular PowerShell from Microsoft and other scripting languages that can even be device or system specific.

IT Automation Examples and Applications

IT automation has near limitless possibilities. Almost any function done manually can be replaced by automated processes. Here are some of the most common processes that benefit from IT automation.

Automating configuration: Researchers such as Gartner and Forrester have found that 80% of SaaS breaches come from misconfiguration, inappropriate user behaviors or incorrectly elevated user permissions. That is why enterprises should properly define, apply and maintain configurations.

Problem solving: Many IT problems either slow critical business processes – or bring them to a screeching halt. Automation can restore functions, often before end users even notice a problem. “Enterprise-class IT infrastructure automation tools trigger actions in response to thresholds and other situational conditions in the IT environment. Advanced IT automation tools oversee the configuration of systems, software and other infrastructure components; recognize unauthorized or unexpected changes; and automatically take corrective actions,” the TechTarget IT Automation blog explained. “For example, if a workload stops responding, this triggers the automated steps to restart it on a different server that has the available capacity to run it. When IT automation is set to enforce a desired state of configurations, the tool detects changes in a server's configuration that are out of spec and restores it to the correct settings.”

Application delivery: Automation can speed the development, testing and delivery of applications, which is why top DevOps teams strive to automate everything. Using code to represent tasks is critical. “Codifying everything brings in standardization of processes and policies across the organization. The processes are simplified into repeatable functional code, and this makes it easier to automate the development and deployment processes while reducing human errors significantly,” the Progress Chef Embrace DevOps eBook said.

The end result is continuous automation. “Continuous Automation is the practice of automating every aspect of an application’s lifecycle to build and deploy software and changes quickly, consistently, and safely,” the Chef Understanding Continuous Automation blog argues. “It integrates automation of infrastructure, applications, and compliance, defining elements as code to make it easy to manage multiple versions, test for a variety of conditions, change when needed, and apply at scale. It is a sophisticated approach to building, deploying, and managing software.”

Security and compliance: Taking care of security and compliance for large enterprises is a series of near endless tasks. Here, IT automation can come to the rescue. “IT operations managers can use automation to define and enforce security, compliance and risk management policies as well as remediate any issues by building them as automated steps throughout their infrastructures,” TechTarget explained. “Automation enables IT operations managers to keep security at the front of their IT processes and to be more proactive in their security efforts. Incorporating standardized, automated cybersecurity processes and workflows makes compliance and auditing easier.”

Key Components

IT automation cannot be fully done with a single solution, as there are myriad solutions and processes that must be automated. There are several categories of automation solutions and functions. Here are a few of the most common:

Automated monitoring: With automated monitoring, your core IT applications systems and infrastructure are closely tracked by the monitoring solution which works automatically in the background. These solutions should detect anomalies and provide root cause analysis. In many cases, the monitoring solution can remediate common issues such as restarting a down server.

Automated IT reporting: IT reporting is commonly based on what the monitoring solution finds, such as anomalies in network and application behaviors, unusual activity in logs and performance issues that could indicate a brute force attack such as DDoS. These reports show network and application performance, as well as areas of concern. Real-time style reports show IT what it needs to respond to quickly, while higher-level historical reports can be used to convince executive staff that the network needs attention and investment, and detail what areas need the most attention.

Automated orchestration: Orchestration is the coordination of multiple IT systems and related processes to perform a function such as system configuration. With orchestration, multiple tasks can be strung together as many IT functions are not a simple one-step process.

Automated IT integration: With automated IT integration, enterprise systems and applications are linked closely together, creating a synergy that can accomplish complex goals. This way disparate systems can share, transfer and synchronize data as well as trigger events in each other.

IT Automation Challenges

If IT automation was easy, everyone would be doing it. Indeed, some tasks are fairly easy to automate as IT admins have long learned by creating PowerShell scripts. More complex processes entail a more complex approach. There are several IT automation challenges that are well worth overcoming, including:

Culture: An enterprise can't move towards IT automation unless its culture supports it. This often entails changing the culture so that stakeholders embrace IT automation rather than seeing it as either a threat to their job security or danger to security and smooth operations. “Culture is as crucial as technology to automation success. Overlooked culture issues are a common cause of automation initiatives that fall short of their goals or stall out entirely. They often overlap other cracks in the foundation, such as skimpy budgets and unrealistic timelines,” the Enterprise Project Automation: 5 Issues for IT Teams to Watch blog argued.

Often, employees are simply resistant to change. “Employees may initially resist automation due to fear of job displacement or a lack of understanding about its benefits. Proper training and clear communication are essential to overcome these challenges,” the blog How IT Automation Boosts Efficiency in Large Enterprises argued.

Get stakeholder buy-in: Changing the culture and undertaking a major IT automation project both require the enterprise leaders and stakeholders buy into the process. Much of this involves explaining the benefits IT automation offers, while explaining the risks they imagine IT automation brings can be overcome with the right approach.

Automating imperfect processes: IT processes often go untested, and when they result in a problem, the process is simply redone in a different way. This doesn't work for IT automation. If a process is to be repeated and applied broadly it must be tested, polished and perfected. If not, you may unwittingly multiply errors through IT automation. “An automated error proliferates much more quickly than a manual error. Errors and oversights are easily codified into an automated process, which the automation tool performs as quickly and efficiently as it does the correct steps. If the administrator automates a complex sequence of events and misses a key step or sets a variable incorrectly, that error is repeated until it's caught, remediated and rolled back,” the TechTarget IT Automation blog argued. “One example of an automated error is the 2010 flash crash of the U.S. stock market, which damaged global trade because of an automated computer system with a flawed algorithm.”

Security: IT automation applies processes across multiple systems. If these processes are themselves a security risk, that risk multiplies. “Automation can introduce security risks if not properly implemented and monitored. It is crucial to maintain robust security measures and regularly update automation workflows to stay ahead of potential threats,” the blog noted.

Complex IT environments complicate IT automation: The typical enterprise IT infrastructure consists of many components and IT processes often run across an array of systems. Making IT automation work seamlessly across these diverse systems requires integration, which involves discovering all the involved components, planning the integration strategy and having IT staffers with the right expertise develop and apply the automation solution.

Benefits of Progress Chef IT Automation

Progress Chef has a number of specific benefits, as our Chef Automate page indicates, including:

  • A Single Source of Truth for All Environments.
  • Application Automation
  • Revitalize legacy applications by repackaging them, applying continuous delivery practices and deploying them to cloud-native environments.
  • Security Automation
  • Detect and correct security issues before they go into production to reduce risk, increase speed and improve efficiency.
  • Infrastructure Automation
  • Automated configuration management enables consistent configurations at scale ensuring configuration policy is flexible, versionable, testable and human readable.

DevOps Chef Automate benefits:

  • Automate the process of managing configurations, ensuring that every system is configured correctly and consistently.
  • Easy to learn, and human-readable language can be used across teams to ensure a unified understanding of your environments’ compliance.
  • Creates platform-independent build artifacts and provides built-in deployment and management capabilities.
  • Artifacts can be exported into immutable formats like Docker or Mesos to ensure applications can be deployed just as easily on servers or as containerized microservice.

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