Sunday, 27 January 2013

Guest blog - IT made simple? Automation lessons from the mainframe

This week, for a change, I’m publishing a blog entry from Marcel den Hartog, Principal Product Marketing for CA Technologies Mainframe Solutions.

Many moons ago, some smart people invented machines to do things (that were previously done manually) faster, better, and more consistently. Good examples are the car industry, the way we make (made) light bulbs, and how we produce clothes or other fabrics. Not much later, people invented machines to automate administrative tasks, so we could calculate faster and have better insights in our financials, with fewer people than ever before. Programmable typewriters are an early example, but the first simple computers did exactly that, add and subtract numbers faster and with fewer errors than an employee could (and ideally with no errors at all!).

The main reason for people inventing “machines” like this was to do things more efficiently, which in turn would make them more competitive. It was as simple as that. True, the equipment was a bit more complex, but the advantages far outweighed the problems of complexity.

This is where Information Technology was born. We soon needed people to drive these “machines”, maintain them, and program them to perform new tasks. And before we knew it, we had simplified a lot of manual tasks, invented some that we didn’t even know existed, and, probably even more important, we were seen as just another part of the business. A part that was able to help the company to run more efficiently and become more competitive.

Automation, in the most general sense, also helped our civilization to evolve faster and faster. Automating more meant we had more time to study, more time to invent even better technology that could automate even more...

However, somehow, at some point in the recent past, something went wrong. We kept implementing more technology that helped us to automate more bits and pieces, but we somehow forgot the next step of automation – automating our automation. Sounds weird? Well, look at how many manual interventions today’s IT systems need to keep them healthy. Ask your IT peers why it still takes 10 days to implement a new server (or 3 days if you do it on a virtualized server farm). Go and ask your Help Desk staff how much time it takes for a performance issue to bubble up, and get fixed again. Ask your operations staff how many of their events (across platforms) have automated actions attached to them that do stuff that could replace manual interventions...

Now, please don’t get me wrong, I know that there are many IT departments that have implemented automation in their IT environment. But in all fairness, it’s not really enough to cope with the complexity of today’s environments. There is another reason, however, for bringing this up now. In the past four years, many IT departments have implemented virtualization in some way. Some have been more successful than others, but there is one thing most people seem to agree on: the current mix of servers – Enterprise Servers like the IBM mainframe, standalone Unix, Linux, and Windows servers, and many virtualized systems running different kinds of OSs – is already hard to manage, and automation is already quite difficult. If the signs are right, we will add a lot of new stuff making it even harder to monitor, manage, and control everything we have.

With the addition of support for mobile devices, Cloud initiatives, and Big Data, we will be confronted with new and unpredictable behaviours arising from our systems. So if there were ever a time to give some extra attention to automate the things we already have, it’s now – at least then we will be more prepared for the unknowns that these new initiatives will bring us. I really think that this is also one of the ways to demonstrate to “the business” that IT really is ready to bring in the new IT services that the business requires. In the past, IT has often been accused of spending too much money to “keep the lights on”. Part of this, as we all know, is the fact that we still spend too much money and time on manual work (and interventions ) to keep these same lights on.

Now, please go back to my first paragraph and tell me if this sounds familiar. The business is now ready for new initiatives like Cloud, Big Data, and more and better support for mobile devices because it will help them to work in a more cost-effective way. IT is also ready for the next step, when we will be required to automate more of what is now running the business, to make sure that it runs as an efficient engine that needs a lot less attention, but also to free up the resources needed to run the new services that the business requires us to run...

I think we can all agree that what I just wrote makes sense. So why not go back to history once more for a final lesson?

Many Fortune 500 companies still run the majority of their mission-critical business services on a mainframe. And for good reason: it is a reliable environment, cost effective, and it is a platform that doesn’t confront managers with a lot of surprises. Some people might call this “boring”, others would say that it’s the way things are supposed to be run. Because of the nature of the mainframe (it was once the ONLY platform to run IT services on) automation has been perfected on this platform in the past decades. Some companies have tens of thousands of “rules” that kick in once unexpected things happen. Looking for proof? See how many people the average mainframe is managed with, compare that with the amount of mission-critical transactions running on that same mainframe, and everybody will agree that you need fewer people to manage a mainframe than you do to manage other environments. With mainframes, you really can have IT made simple.

People learn from the past. Experience is what has brought mankind to where it is today. But for some strange reason, we tend to think of history as something that goes 50+ years back. In IT, going back in history to learn something simply means going back 6-10 years. Talk to your mainframe peers, learn from their experience, and find how you can benefit from their automation expertise. It will not only make your current infrastructure run better, it will also help you to demonstrate to the business that you are ready for the next bulk of new and innovative IT projects – and you will save some money at the same time. And who doesn’t want to do that these days?

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