Moving Beyond Basic Automation: The Autonomic Revolution

Every IT pro knows the benefits of automation. The question is: where should IT start, and where is autonomics headed?

By Chetan Dube

Just about every industry -- whether automotive, manufacturing, or electric – has invariably gone through a process of standardization, consolidation and finally, automation. History repeats itself, and IT is no different. The world is changing dramatically, and we are rapidly approaching the point of inflection. The majority of tomorrow’s IT infrastructure is not going to be managed by people but by expert systems.

Why Automate?

The ultimate goal of automation is to absolve employees of the repetitive, mind-numbing tasks and free them to concentrate on higher forms of creativity. I have never met an expert engineer who likes to tighten the same nut and bolt day after day, so why should we subject the intelligent engineering brains on our IT staffs to this drudgery when there is a better way?

Rather than chasing low-cost resources around the globe, autonomic technologies reduce costs and offer improved scalability, flexibility, and compliance. Plus, autonomics perform manual processes much more efficiently with drastic reductions in mean time to resolution and more consistent business outcomes.

The growth of autonomic capabilities has opened up many possibilities for automation. Basic automation tools can automate the execution of an activity, but autonomics add a contextual element that automates a variety of activities based on environmental cues. For instance, an autonomic tool can decide to perform bandwidth-heavy work in the middle of the night when there is less competition for network space, and can analyze a complex series of actions and decide which to do first. It can also ask permission to perform an action, and decide how to proceed based on the engineer’s answer.

Where to Implement Autonomics

Autonomic technologies make it possible to automate just about every routine IT task, and every IT function that can be defined in a structured process should be a candidate for automation. When deciding where to spend automation budgets, look at the high-level aspects of IT first management, escalation, and approval procedures. Take the time to interview employees to see where process management becomes convoluted. It is at these points where automation should first be considered.

There are some considerations that must be taken into account when deciding what to automate with autonomic technologies. For instance, if it takes significant effort to build an automation solution that saves the IT staff an insignificant amount of time, it likely will not be worth the initial time investment. It’s also important to ensure that automation is not masking problems. For example, if I build an automated fix for every time my server experiences latency, which happens 10 times in a day, there could be a much bigger problem that needs to be solved, not automated. That said, when applied correctly, autonomics can help address these problems by detecting recurring patterns.

Finally, there are often automation opportunities left undiscovered simply by the fact that they have become so ingrained in operating procedures. This is where creative-minded employees can display their worth. You have designers on your staff -- those who excel in studying a framework and making changes where others see nothing wrong -- so use them. These members of your team will be indispensable for the automation design process.

Once you have determined where you would like to see more seamless process flow via autonomics, you can begin to overlay the new system on top of the old one. Think of the new software as an additional, perfect engineer, one that can complete duties from start to finish at any time of day.

Autonomics is Advancing IT’s Immune System

Humans learn with time and, as we experience more, we gain intelligence. In the same way, autonomic technologies can learn and develop adaptive reasoning systems based on experience.

Consider the human immune system. When it detects something is wrong, it tries to diagnose the problem and alleviate it with an existing antibody. If that doesn’t work, it calls attention to the problem, through a fever or sore throat. Once a doctor treats the problem with medication, the immune system takes note of this antibody, teaching the body how to heal itself. With every vaccine and virus the human body is exposed to, its knowledge of how to heal itself grows.

Similarly, if an autonomic technology notices something wrong within an IT network, it will attempt to diagnose the problem and fix it. If the autonomics tool doesn’t know how to solve the problem, it will “watch” how a human engineer solves the problem, learning how to resolve something that it hasn’t yet faced. Over time, the autonomic system will be able to diagnose and deploy solutions to “heal” IT infrastructure, eliminating the need for human intervention in most IT scenarios. By observing and tracking engineers’ actions, autonomic tools develop probabilities of what to do in certain situations, expanding their knowledge base as well as the range of issues that they can resolve.

If all of your servers and network devices continuously grow more intelligent, they will have much better uptime and availability characteristics. By putting a veneer of engineering intellect on top of every router, server and application, we can make the entire system become smarter with time.

Looking into the Future

How much of IT can be managed by these autonomic agents? On average, 56 percent of all incidents across the IPsoft client base are handled without human intervention. There will always be exceptions that go beyond the capability of these expert systems but as the systems continue to learn, we think we can push that average to 80 percent.

With ever more pressure to deliver effective, low-cost industrialized services, the IT world is seeing increased adoption of automation. With more companies transitioning into the cloud, it will become even more important to standardize and automate IT processes in order to free engineers from long and complex run books requiring support and maintenance.

There are no easy shortcuts to developing breakthrough technologies, but we are already seeing the impact of autonomic systems that truly mimic the human brain.

Chetan Dube is the president and CEO of Ipsoft, a global provider of autonomic-based IT services. Dube founded the company in 1998 with the mission of powering the world with expert systems. During his tenure at IPsoft, Dube has led the company to create a radical shift in the way infrastructure is managed.

Prior to joining IPsoft, Dube served as an Assistant Professor at New York University. In conjunction with Distinguished Members of the Technical Staff at AT&T Bell Labs, he researched cognitive intelligence models that could facilitate cloning human intelligence. Dube has been working at IPsoft to create an IT world where machine intelligence will take care of most mundane chores, allowing mankind to concentrate on higher forms of creative thinking. Dube speaks frequently about autonomics and utility computing and has presented seminars about the environmental benefits of automation. You can contact the author at ipsoft@marchpr.com.