Automation is critical to scaling systems, services, and products. But restrictive licensing models and a lack of orchestration hamper efforts to quickly expand. If you’re looking for scalable automation, these features and capabilities are the only place to start.
Managing Scalability with Automation
Business fluctuates and organizations expand. Web traffic to online retailers increases during holidays, start-ups triple in size, and organizations scramble to respond to a quickly changing world.
In order to support these changes, IT has to scale the right resources at the right time.
The role of automation in a scalable environment is to reduce the amount of labor required to manage and maintain that environment. IT can’t manually kick-off an exponential number of file transfers, or manually provision and deprovision hundreds of cloud systems or VMs.
In order to support scalability, automation platforms include a variety of capabilities and features that enable IT to automate everything from ETL processes to remediation workflows. With fewer manual tasks to complete, IT can achieve the scalability the organization needs.
However, unpredictable costs and stringent licensing models can hamper an automation platform’s ability to scale.
Licensing a Scalable Automation Solution
There’s a lot of variation when it comes to licensing models for automation platforms, but charging per job or run is an industry norm. The problem with this is that it creates uncertainty.
For example, if you’re a retailer, it’s difficult to determine ahead of time how many runs you will need to execute during a holiday sale. Or, if you’re a hospital, how many files you’ll need to transfer during an unexpected viral outbreak.
Having to pay per job or run makes it impossible to accurately predict what your automating expenses will be for the year.
Some automation vendors provide licensing models that are designed with scalability in mind. Those licensing models include unlimited jobs and unlimited runs, so that IT doesn’t have to worry about additional fees for expanding a service, or for dealing with an unexpected surge in data.
Tip: Find an automation vendor that allows unlimited jobs and unlimited instances.
When automation vendors charge per job, IT team members often find themselves building complex, all-in-one jobs in order to avoid those additional costs. Nothing makes scalability harder to achieve than complex, cumbersome jobs.
Changing Gears to Meet New Business Requirements
In order to stay ahead of unexpected changes –the business shifts its 5-year-plan, or a new start-up shakes-up the market, etc.– IT needs to be able to quickly shift its environments.
However, per-machine licenses make it difficult to re-configure the automation environment.
There can be large discrepancies in cost depending on whether your automation implementation is hosted on-premises or in the cloud, or whether you implement your platform in an Oracle environment or an IBM environment, for example.
The problem is that a per-machine license, again, creates expense uncertainty. If your organization wants to move a portion of its business to the cloud, then IT is forced to find room in its budget to move its automation platform (or to purchase enough connectors).
Instead, look for an automation vendor that charges a flat cost for its licenses, allowing IT to move those licenses to different machines or locations (on-prem/cloud) without increasing expenses.
Tip: Find a vendor that charges a flat cost for its licenses, regardless of machine size or deployment style.
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Capabilities to Scale
It’s not practical to hire multiple IT techs just to provision and deprovision VMs every day.
Instead, automation tools provide a wealth of capabilities and features that reduce the need for manual interventions. So IT can get more done with less, regardless how much their large-scale environments might grow.
Tools for Developers
Scalability starts with the developers who design your automated processes, and no developer wants to cut-and-paste a few lines of code into hundreds or thousands of different jobs. Not only is it inefficient, but it leaves lots of room for human error.
Automation platforms offer a variety of tools that make it easier for devops to maintain dynamic, agile environments.
A few critical development tools for scalability:
- Shared Objects
Some automation platforms require developers to hard-code basic properties that can easily be shared for improved maintenance and security. Examples include credential objects, execution machine objects, or alert objects. These objects also can have unique security privileges, like use rights distinguished from read rights. This is particularly useful for passwords or API keys. As environments and businesses scale, an update to a password or the addition of new automation processes is seamless and secure.
Nearly all enterprise automation tools include some level of variabilization, enabling IT to use parameters within jobs or scripts instead of hard-coding all values. This means one job’s logic can be templated based on each run thereafter. Some automation platforms take it a step further, providing dynamic variable values based on live data source such as a database, script return value, file contents, and more.
When a developer builds a job, it’s likely that same core job logic will be used across numerous workflows with only slight modification. Rather than copy-and-pasting the logic and maintaining endless duplicates, developers can instead create any number of child reference jobs from a single template. When the developer needs to update the core logic, he or she doesn’t have to do so on 500 separate jobs, instead making one change to the template that cascades the change to its child jobs.
- No-code, universal connectors
Prebuilt job actions serve as platform-agnostic connectors, allowing developers to drag-and-drop them into virtually any workflow. This means developers can focus on the function of the task, and less on scripting. These actions are easily templatable, so actions like connecting to an FTP server or logging a sub-step can be created and personalized once and shared to any other job.
- Low-code API accessibility
While out-of-the-box connectors and prebuilt third-party integrations are great, not every tool is integrated with every other tool. Not to mention, versions come in and out of support and homegrown tools may never be supported. Simple, low-code API accessibility ensures that IT can seamlessly integrate virtually anything now, or down the line.
Tools for Operators
IT operators can’t be everywhere at once. As an environment scales, operators have more to manage, monitor, and maintain. As you look to implement a scalable automation system, keep these features and capabilities at the top of your “must-have” list.
Many process automation platforms enable users to set alerts that will send notifications based on a defined event: a job fails or an SLA is getting close to breach, for example. Alerts can be sent to end-users and systems via a variety of methods, including email and SMS, and can even execute remediation workflows so that no issue goes unresolved.
It’s not always feasible to drop what you’re doing and run across the office to manually trigger a remediation workflow. Especially if you’re at risk of missing a critical SLA. Instead, auto-remediation workflows can be configured to execute based on predefined events -such as restarting a workflow. This way, you can reduce delays and improve SLAs without increasing your workload.
Tip: Check to see if an automation vendor provides auto-remediation out-of-the-box, because not all vendors do.
- Intelligent provisioning
Automation platforms have some handy mechanisms for managing both workloads and the machines those workloads run on. This includes facilities that allocate resources based on a job’s needs, whether static or dynamic. Those same facilities will even provision additional resources to meet a job’s demand, and deprovision those resources when the job completes. Machine learning algorithms are also being used to analyze reams of historical and real-time data, provisioning and deprovisioning resources based on expected and real-time demand.
The Right Interfaces
As operations scale and IT aligns more closely with the business, a few things happen: business users need more help from IT, IT needs to quickly address those issues, and those issues happen more frequently throughout the day and night.
IT techs can’t spend their time running around helping line-of-business personnel, nor can they stay in the office 24/7 waiting for issues.
What they can do, however, is implement a few easy-to-use interfaces.
- Self-service portals
Self-service automation portals are designed for line-of-business users. These portals provide business and help desk teams with a simple, easy-to-use interface for managing and monitoring processes critical to their roles. Users can execute data transfers, run reports, provision resources, and much more. Of course, it’s still up to IT to manage user permissions.
- Drag-and-drop GUI
In order to work quickly and efficiently, IT needs an intuitive GUI contained in a console that unifies monitoring, scheduling, development, and administration. Plus, drag-and-drop workflow designers make it easy for developers to quickly assemble cross-platform workflows.
- Mobile access
IT can’t always be on-site. So whether a job fails or a server goes down, problems often aren't addressed till the next morning. Mobile applications for automation platforms are changing that. With mobile access, users can monitor and manage their environments from almost anywhere, at any time. That means peace of mind, knowing that you can quickly restart a critical process remotely if you happen to get a notification late at night.
Scalable automation is essential for the digital enterprise. While computer systems, IoT, and data volumes exponentially increase, automation frameworks need to be ready to scale with them. Selecting the right automation platform is not an easy task. But, we hope this guide provides a basis for some “must-haves” so you can be better prepared for what’s next.
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Brian is a staff writer for the IT Automation without Boundaries blog, where he covers IT news, events, and thought leadership. He has written for several publications around the New York City-metro area, both in print and online, and received his B.A. in journalism from Rowan University. When he’s not writing about IT orchestration and modernization, he’s nose-deep in a good book or building Lego spaceships with his kids.