Taking Control of Data Center Automation

There’s an ugly downside to many of the utility computing technologies on the market today

There’s an ugly downside to many of the utility computing or infrastructure automation technologies on the market today.

To the extent that they each address specific technology domains—e.g., Veritas’ Storage Foundation automates storage management and provisioning, Opsware Inc.’s Network Automation Center does the same for network resources—they comprise an archipelago of disparate management tools. It can be an IT nightmare.

That’s where infrastructure automation specialist Opalis Software Inc. comes into the picture. It champions an infrastructure management ethic that might be called meta-automation. “We’re trying to reduce the heavy lifting,” says CEO Scott Broder. “I look at a kind of Opsware who’s a configuration management or provisioning solution, I think of them as one of the many tools that you’d find in the datacenter, and just like BladeLogic is a great provisioning system, is a tool that is used and invoked by people who manage systems, and just like Veritas automates backup to some extent, each one of these tools is really a silo that is automating just that very specific use.”

Opalis sits on top of all of these tools, Broder says. “We’re really a layer above that that kind of integrates or orchestrates the use of all of those together.”

He describes a kind of meet-the-new-boss-same-as-the-old-boss story arc. “Once upon a time, there was a trend to move into frameworks where you’d use a Tivoli or a Unicenter and the goal was that you’d have one throat to choke,” he comments. This approach doesn’t work for a number of reasons, Broder argues. For one thing, the convenience of an all-in-one framework offering is offset by its inferiority to best-of-breed tools.

Once you have a meta-automation tool that can integrate and orchestrate all of your best-of-breed tools, you effectively have most of the benefits of a framework without its attendant feature and functionality limitations, Broder claims. This, in a nutshell, is Opalis’ pitch.

“When the pendulum swung back the other way to point products, [customers] started asking, ‘How do you then achieve the benefit of integration, how do you get these products to work together?’ That’s what we do. We’re the thin layer on top of what you already in your data center that really brings all of these [best-of-breed automation tools] together.” To that end, Broder says, Opalis Integration Server can control most third-party (or even homegrown) management or automation tools. It exploits a mixture of published APIs, Web services connectivity (where applicable), and custom coding to reach into third-party management tools.

Opalis can also accommodate the custom scripts and batch files used in homegrown or ad hoc automation solutions, Broder says. “You absolutely can invoke existing scripts or batch files or programs from within a policy, and companies that have legacy applications for which maybe there isn’t a high-level connector, we also have a bunch of connectors for these. So you can integrate almost any application or device.”

Not So Fast

If there’s a flaw in Opalis’ strategy, it’s in the positioning. Opalis claims it doesn’t directly compete against other players in the automation space, but it’s possible these vendors might nevertheless chafe at the company’s meta-level positioning. After all, as a management console that sits on top of third-party management and automation tools, Opalis takes for itself primacy of place. By definition, then, Opalis Integration Server abstracts—or potentially minimizes—the roles that these tools play in infrastructure automation and management.

In the same way that America Online, Yahoo!, or The Microsoft Network resent the meta-positioning of the third-party Trillian instant-messaging client—these vendors made changes to their instant messaging implementations to discourage third-party support—Opsware, Remedy, or other automation specialists could potentially make life more difficult for Opalis and its customers.

Broder downplays such a threat. “We are really the Switzerland, the independent third-party, that’s really going to integrate and achieve the promise of frameworks by integrating all of these components,” he says. “We have technology partnerships with all of them [automation vendors]. Generally there isn’t a vendor that we’ve wanted to work with that we’ve had trouble with, and there certainly hasn’t been anyone that’s shut us down, or has tried to make our lives difficult.”

Another challenge is the hype cycle of utility computing itself. Thanks in part to buzzword-heavy marketing efforts from Sun Microsystems Inc. (the former N1), Hewlett-Packard Co. (Utility Data Center, Adaptive Enterprise), and IBM Corp. (On Demand), there’s a perception that utility computing is an over-hyped—and largely empty—technology panacea.

This perception unfairly belies the legitimate role that infrastructure automation technologies can play in the enterprise data centers of today, Broder says. “Part of our challenge is that there are some preconceived notions about automation that are negative, and so we find that what we need to focus on is the suspension of that disbelief. A lot of the products until today have been just über-toolkits or SDKs, which hasn’t helped. But in [Opalis Integration Server] you can construct drag-and-drop [automation] policies. You can literally point-and-click the orchestrations between [third-party automation tools].”

Because Opalis Integration Server boasts canned integration with most third-party automation tools, it makes for a relatively straightforward implementation, Broder claims. “[T]his is not [a product where] armies of professional services guys … need to come in and based on our toolkit create or code a custom applications that does what this five step policy here does. The development or codification of this policy is really just drag-and-drop, point-and-click. You don’t need to be Remedy-certified, [and] you don’t need to have taken the training course in Veritas. True, at some point, someone needs to come in and have installed Remedy, but to get Remedy incorporated into your process the way you want it incorporated, it’s all building drag-and-drop policies.”

About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.