IBM pushes for greater IT automation

IBM intends to transform how data centers operate for customers looking to reduce manual labor, cut costs and put in place a more energy-efficient infrastructure. Industry watchers say Big Blue could have the right technology to turn those plans into reality but needs to better clarify its value to customers.

At its inaugural Pulse Conference in Orlando this week, IBM laid out a vision for IT operations that rely heavily on automation to reduce the cost of manual labor and inefficient computing. The company provided details around management software that could support such improvements in enterprise IT shops.

The show drew more than 4,000 attendees and focused on hands-on labs, tutorials and sessions on management software that IBM has acquired over the years with Tivoli, Micromuse and MRO Software.

"For all we have accomplished, we are still challenged with the issues of visibility, control and automation," said Steve Mills, senior vice president and group executive of IBM Software Group. "We are now in a position to create a common control environment as we evolve toward full automation. IT will be the vehicle to take the labor problem out of the challenge of controlling the world's infrastructure. It's a simple idea, but it's not easy to do."

IT managers agree that IBM's message, dubbed the "industrialization of IT," is on target as they look to automate processes such as service request, asset management and disaster recovery tasks.

"We'd have to hire 15 people to do the bare minimum of what we are using IBM software to do now," says Matthew Elston, a technical manager at pharmacy benefits manager HealthTrans in Greenwood Village, Colo. "With virtualization, transaction-based applications and the need to scale business fast, you just can't have five people working in IT, supporting it all manually. People need to sleep."

Elston is part of a team at HealthTrans working with IBM Tivoli's Workload Scheduler and Dynamic Workload Broker applications to transition hundreds of homegrown scripts into process templates so the company can more quickly add clients without having to add head count.

"Our applications need to process in subseconds, and we need to keep transaction response time at a minimum without having to grow IT staff as the business grows," says Brian Frantz, operations manager at HealthTrans. "Before these products, our processes couldn't scale; the scripts were 10 years old. Now it's a case of being able to constantly evolve our environment without overhauling everything."

The case for automation at HealthTrans is not unique. The push to incorporate automation technology is becoming more common across all types of businesses as the need grows for IT to expand operations and provide more services with the same resources. The technology has shifted from a nice-to-have to a must-have in the past 18 months, industry watchers say, and its relevance to data center operations will only continue to grow in importance.

"The number of things to be managed is going to explode. IT organizations cannot hire human labor to keep up with the proliferation of devices, tags, applications and more that will become standard in data centers," says Jasmine Noel, principal analyst at Ptak, Noel & Associates. "It's not about comfort levels with automation or streamlining certain processes. To effectively run IT operations, there is no longer a choice with automation."

Autonomic history

IBM kicked off its autonomic computing initiative in 2001 and until recently represented the primary proponent for automation technology among management competitors BMC, CA and HP.

In the past 18 months, HP acquired data center automation vendor Opsware, and BMC picked up run-book automation start-up RealOps along with BladeLogic. This year, CA partnered with automation player Opalis in a deal rumored to portend an automation acquisition on CA's part later this year.

With competitors making big news, industry watchers say IBM's automation capabilities could appear stale to customers despite the fact that Big Blue has been quietly developing a formidable automation portfolio within its management software tools.

"When I look at IT process automation as one of the important parts of effective service delivery, I look to how well a vendor integrates its own products. About a year or so ago, IBM had a big problem in this area," says Andi Mann, research director at Enterprise Management Associates. "IBM has done a lot of work around integrating their products in useful and practical ways to enable similar interfaces and workflows across the products."

For instance, IBM integrated the Maximo user interface technology it acquired with MRO Software with its Tivoli Process Automation Platform to provide a more intuitive console. From this console, data center IT or facilities staff members can quickly and easily access information about technology or physical components. The software also enables staff to build and store workflows to be used repeatedly.

For Will Showalter, chief operating officer at Sisters of Mercy Hospital in St. Louis, Mo., IBM's MRO Software acquisition drove a technology purchase around IT service catalogs and an engagement with IBM Global Technology Services. Showalter is standardizing service management operations across locations in seven states and needed both the service desk technology and process expertise IBM's service group offered.

"IBM has a deep understanding of its own tools and knows the best practices necessary to integrate the technology, ITIL and operations," Showalter says. "Automating more processes has freed us up to concentrate on capacity management and building out our environment instead of fielding calls."

Still, industry watchers say IBM needs to do more work around building connectors into other vendors' software and helping customers more easily develop processes its technology can automate. Customers shouldn't need to engage in a services contract to get IBM's extensive process expertise loaded into the vendor's software products.

"IBM needs to broaden what IBM software will work with to automate processes across the entire data center," Mann says. "Better integration and out-of-the-box processes are where IBM is behind competitors like BMC and CA."

Green motivations

Also as part of its effort to help customer improve data center operations, Big Blue bundled power usage and consumption monitoring technologies into its IBM Tivoli Monitoring products to help the 8,000 customers of those applications start tracking green metrics alongside traditional IT data.

"Going green is a cloudy issue for many IT managers in terms of what it really means. This feature is simple to deploy and will show results in such a way that it will be easier for IT to communicate the value of changing infrastructure management to support more energy-efficient products and processes," says Rich Ptak, co-founder and analyst at Ptak, Noel & Associates. "The data the green monitor collects can also help with capacity management and potentially predict power-related failures."

IBM partnered with companies such as Eaton Corporation, Emerson Network Power and Johnson Controls Inc. to enable its software to receive data from third parties. The partnerships resonate with customers looking to cut costs but not yet prepared to tackle the environmental benefits green computing advocates propose.

"Businesses are facing a real crisis for available power in data centers. Economics will be the driving force in what people will do environmentally," Mills says.

Rodney Caston, manager of corporate engineering at MetroPCS, a wireless communications service provider in Dallas, says his company has yet to fully assess how it will start implementing green technology. But he concedes the promise of cost savings will be a driver for adopting energy-efficient monitoring tools.

"Given the cost of energy is on the rise, and the fact that IBM is showing leadership in this area, I'll be looking at better ways we can handle our energy and power consumption," Caston says.

This story, "IBM pushes for greater IT automation" was originally published by Network World.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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