Q&A: IT Automation: Trends and Tips

Why is IT the last department to have automated tools?

IT is so busy finishing automation projects for its customers that it's almost forgotten how automation can benefit its own work. How has IT found itself in this unenviable position and how can it sell an IT automation project of its own to upper management? Once a project is approved, what best practices should IT follow to maximize the benefits of automation? For answers we turned to Dan Shapiro, senior vice president of marketing at automation vendor Kaseya.

Enterprise Strategies: When we talk about IT automation, what tasks are we typically discussing?

Dan Shapiro: IT automation covers many of the routine tasks that systems engineers and IT administrators perform on a daily basis. Tasks such as patch management, remote PC administration, software/hardware audit, and systems maintenance are typical activities that can be automated and integrated in a single framework. In addition, backup and antivirus/anti spyware are also IT services that can be integrated and automated in a common framework with single-agent deployment.

What's the value of IT automation to IT and to the enterprise? What benefits can IT expect?

For the IT person, automation enables efficiency in daily tasks. Instead of reactively fixing problems, IT departments can proactively manage their IT infrastructure. Automation leaves less room for human error, which means less rework.

For the organization as a whole, IT automation ensures greater uptime and availability, improved systems performance and an overall improvement in satisfaction among an organization's employees with IT services. IT automation also increases employees' productivity and decreases risk of business interruption.

There are several ways to justify automating IT. In addition to reduced license fees and training costs, and less time spent reworking IT tasks, there are benefits that align with corporate goals, such as improved customer service due to system availability. Also, less downtime means a better bottom line.

What's the current state of IT automation? For example, what percent of IT customers are already automating their key tasks?

Unfortunately, most IT shops still do things manually. Fewer than 50 percent of IT tasks are automated. Kaseya recently conducted a survey of IT executives and found that backup is the most automated task, at 60 percent. Tasks such as patch management, performance monitoring, and endpoint security are automated less than 50 percent of the time. Audit/discovery, systems maintenance, and regulatory compliance are automated less than 30 percent.

Worse is that while some tasks are automated, they run in silos and fail to achieve the true benefit of automation through an integrated platform to deliver IT services.

What keeps the remainder of IT shops from automating tasks?

IT organizations tend to buy point solutions and only automate on a piecemeal basis. It is difficult to integrate disparate technologies. In addition, there may be a steep learning curve to learn each tools paradigm for service delivery (e.g., reporting, scheduling, deployment, alerts exception management and remediation options). For these reasons, IT organizations that choose a multi-vendor path often fail to reap the true benefits of proactive and integrated IT automation.

For a shop that isn't currently automated, I would imagine that pitching an automation project could be a tough sell. After all, business users already hate having to wait a long time in the queue for service. How can IT get the necessary approval and funding for an automation project?

In many cases, an IT automation solution would cost the same or less than the maintenance costs of current point solutions (for example, systems management frameworks, patch software, monitoring tools, backup, and AV subscriptions). By taking a holistic approach to automation, organizations experience significant savings. At the same time, it is important to pick a platform that is flexible and easy to deploy, to avoid long implementation cycles to achieve automation.

What lessons have IT shops learned when it comes to undertaking or expanding their IT automation projects?

Most customers take the approach of implementing a piece of an integrated platform (such as patch management, remote PC administration, or audit/discovery) first. Once they have the basics in place, they tend to implement an integrated helpdesk/service desk component.

As they get a handle on improving the user experience and achieve proactive IT service delivery, they are then free to automate and integrate other tasks, such as backup or AV. The key is to evaluate an IT automation platform that can automate all these IT services with a single agent across existing network infrastructure, easing deployment.

What best practices can you recommend to avoid IT automation problems?

ITIL (the Information Technology Infrastructure Library) is a great source for best practices on IT service delivery. Taking a pragmatic view of IT service delivery avoids many pitfalls of IT automation.

What products or services does Kaseya offer for automating IT?

Kaseya offers an easy-to-use automated systems management solution that reduces the total cost of ownership for desktops, notebooks, Macs, and PC-based servers. It was developed for internal IT organizations that manage distributed systems and lets IT administrators deploy, manage, and proactively maintain systems remotely. It uses a single agent to automate hardware/software audit, patch management, network monitoring, backup, endpoint security, and systems maintenance, among other tasks.