IT Automation Evolving Thanks to New Open-Source Tools

One of the simplest ways to tell whether a data center is being well managed is to see if the individual servers have pet names. Naming a server suggests the machine has some characteristics that need to be uniquely addressed—which, more often than not, means relying on manual processes that wind up making the cost of IT labor prohibitive.

“Anytime you see servers named after characters from ‘Lord of the Rings,’ it’s usually a sign of a complex, messy environment,” said Brent Jones, senior systems architect for Smarsh, a provider of an archiving services in the cloud for electronic communications. “When you look at advanced organizations such as Facebook or Google that we all try to emulate, you really don’t see machines that have individual names.”

Smarsh is part of a growing legion of IT organizations that rely on open-source IT automation tools such as Puppet from Puppet Labs or Chef from Opscode to automate management functions that previously required a lot of manual intervention on the part of an administrator.

While the concept of IT automation has been around since the early days of the mainframe, it’s only with the availability of easily accessible open-source automation tools that more IT professionals have begun applying these concepts to the management of distributed systems.

As is often the case in IT, necessity has become the mother of invention. With the advent of virtualization, the number of virtual servers running on top of physical servers has exploded. At the same time, the number of storage systems has increased dramatically, along with the sheer volume of data needing to be managed. Throwing additional administrators at this problem not only doesn’t scale, it’s simply cost-prohibitive. More challenging yet is the fact that, in the age of the cloud, IT administrators are now being asked to manage distributed system resources across multiple data centers.

To solve this issue, VMware turned to Puppet Labs, which recently picked up an additional $30 million in financing from VMware as part of an ambitious effort to create software-defined data centers that allow organizations to manage IT resources using a simple declarative language versus mastering an actual programming language.

“There’s some of overlap between what Puppet does and VMware currently provides,” said Ronnie Colville, an analyst with the IT Operations Group at Gartner. “But there’s also a lot of capability in terms of what can be done with Puppet that VMware today simply can’t provide.”

Unfortunately, change of this magnitude doesn’t come easy to most IT organizations. In fact, when it comes to IT automation, Coville suggests IT organizations are “bipolar” in terms of either fully embracing it or completely resisting it.

To overcome that resistance, Puppet Lab chief executive Luke Kaines believes that IT organizations should start small. “What we really recommend is that IT organizations put a small team of people together that are really committed to making a change,” he said. “It’s really about managing IT at a new level of scale. We very rarely see organizations trying to eliminate IT jobs because of automation.”

Nevertheless, while IT automation makes a lot of sense on paper, there are no end of cultural and technical issues that have conspired to limit adoption. Many IT professionals not only worry that IT automation will eliminate their job; they contend that existing products don’t provide enough transparency into the process or simply don’t work as well as the scripts they have developed themselves. On top of that, many IT organizations don’t have very mature IT management processes in place, which makes it difficult to automate a process that doesn’t formally exist.

Adam Jacob, chief customer officer for Opscode and creator of Chef, says one big reason a lot of organizations implode when it comes to IT automation is that they fail to take a holistic approach to the problem. Individual teams within the IT organization wind up automating specific layers of computing such as the network or storage layer. The final result is a lot of incompatible points of automation.

“The worst thing you can do is try to automate IT without really knowing how the underlying processes really work,” Jacob said. “You want to run IT like a factory, but it’s not like factories just spring up overnight. IT automation is a journey. You have to be prepared for the fact that you’re at some point going to fall down multiple times during the course of that journey.”

Fortunately, the fundamental need to address everything from managing virtualization to the DevOps crisis is forcing more organizations to finally confront their IT management issues.

Those IT management issues go way beyond infrastructure, suggested Josh Greenbaum, principal of Enterprise Applications Consulting: “In a lot of instances IT organizations are required under the terms of their licensing agreement to use application-specific tools from SAP or Oracle.”

While Puppet Labs and Opscode are garnering a lot of attention these days with in the open-source community, it’s the applications issue that’s starting to attract new open-source competitors.

Cloud Sidekick, for example, recently emerged from stealth mode to deliver commercial support around Cato, an open source IT automation platform based on technology developed by T-Mobile. According to Cloud Sidekick chief execurtive Dennis Ehle, the company’s Maestro IT automation management platform was developed to make it easier to manage environments where a lot of complex inter-dependencies exist between application and systems.

“The goal is identify all the logical dependencies no matter how dynamic they are,” Ehle said. “In some instances a virtual machine might only be up for a day. We want to make it possible for organizations to self-service their IT needs even in the most complex heterogeneous environments.”

Richard Merwin, manager of ERP research and development at North Carolina State University, said that capability is what attracted NCSU to the platform. While NCSU uses Puppet to manage some of its x86 server environments, when it came to its PeopleSoft applications from Oracle, it was looking for automation framework that could handle a lot more complexity.

“We’re an open-source first shop,” he said. “Maestro and Cato allow us to do more in the way of customization, run queries and load balancing. But it’s still a work in progress.”

Of course, providers of commercial IT automation software that include IBM, CA Technologies, UC4 Software, BMC Software and Advanced Systems Concepts are not sitting idly by. While they all acknowledge that open source has played a role in making IT automation software more accessible, the increasing complexity of the IT environment will require approaches to IT automation that more easily scale not only across departments but also multiple organizations.

In the meantime, as a general trend, IT automation is becoming more closely aligned with the whole “DevOps” movement. Without some ability to automate, IT organizations simply won’t be able to keep pace with the volume of code generated by developers who have embraced agile methodologies. But whatever the cause, the one thing for certain is that the way data centers have been managed for the last 20 years (or more) will not scale into the future.

“No matter how you want look at it,” said Puppet Labs’ Kanies. “IT organizations are not going to be able to keep pace relying on their existing tools and skills.”


Image: bannosuke/