The Reference Guide to Data Center Automation

by Anil Desai


It’s no secret that IT departments are faced with pressure to increase service levels while decreasing operational costs. Data center automation provides a perfect solution for achieving such levels of operational efficiency. Co-authored by network management and IT automation experts Don Jones and Anil Desai, The Reference Guide to Data Center Automation provides a comprehensive, in-depth resource to help IT professionals understand both the value that IT automation brings to network management, as well as the individual components of a well managed IT organization.

The Reference Guide to Data Center Automation is offered in eight volumes. Each volume contains articles describing key concepts, terms, and topics related to data center automation.


Volume 1: Business Value, ITIL, Network Configuration

Over time, organizations have placed increasingly heavy demands on their IT departments. Although budgets are limited, end users and other areas of the business rely increasingly on computing resources and services to get their jobs done. This situation raises the important issue of how IT staff can meet these demands in the best possible way. Despite the importance of IT in strategic and tactical operations, many technical departments are run in an ad-hoc and reactive way. Often, issues are only addressed after they have ballooned into major problems and support-related costs can be tremendous. From the end-user standpoint, IT departments can never react quickly enough to the need for new applications or changing requirements. Clearly, there is room for improvement.

Volume 2: ROI, Server Provisioning, CMDB

Most IT users recognize that one of the most important—and visible—functions of their IT departments is setting up new computers. Server provisioning is the process of readying a server for production use. It generally involves numerous tasks, beginning with the purchase of server hardware and the physical racking of the equipment. Next is the important (and tedious) task of installing and configuring the operating system (OS). This step is followed by applying security patches and OS updates, installing any required applications, and performing security configuration.

When done manually, the entire process can be time consuming and error prone. For example, if a single update is overlooked, the server may be vulnerable to security exploits. Furthermore, even in the smallest IT environments, the task of server provisioning is never really “done”—changes in business and technical requirements often force administrators to repurpose servers with new configuration settings and roles.

Volume 3: TCO, Network and Server Convergence

The process of auditing involves systematic checks and examinations to ensure that a specific aspect of a business is functioning as expected. In the financial world, auditing requires a review of accounting records, and verification of the information that is recorded. The purpose is to ensure that the details are consistent and that rules are being followed. From an IT standpoint, auditing should be an important aspect of operations.

Volume 4: Remote Administration, IT Processes

The primary focus of IT departments should be meeting the requirements of other members of their organizations. As businesses have become increasingly reliant on their technology investments, people ranging from desktop users to executive management have specific expectations related to the levels of service they should receive. Although these expectations sometimes coincide with understandings within an IT organization, in many cases, there is a large communications gap.

Service Level Agreements (SLAs) are intended to establish, communicate, and measure the levels of service that will be provided by IT departments. They are mutually agreed-upon definitions of scope, expected turnaround times, quality, reliability, and other metrics that are important to the business as a whole.

Volume 5: Business Continuity

In the old days of information technology (IT), applications frequently fit on floppy disks or resided on a single mainframe computer. As long as the hardware platform met the minimum system requirements, data center administrators could be fairly sure that the application would run properly. And, ensuring uptime and reliability involved ensuring that the few computers that ran the software were running properly. Times have definitely changed. Modern applications are significantly more complicated, and can often rely on many different components of an overall IT architecture.

Understanding Application Infrastructure

When considering hardware, software, network, and operating system (OS) requirements, the entire infrastructure that is required to support an application can include dozens of computers and devices. The actual number of independent parts adds complexity, which in turn can make it much more difficult to manage overall systems.

Volume 6: Policy Enforcement, Change Tracking

Well-managed IT departments are characterized by having defined, repeatable processes that are communicated throughout the organization. However, sometimes that alone isn’t enough—it’s important for IT managers and systems administrators to be able to verify that their standards are being followed throughout the organization.

The Benefits of Policies

It usually takes time and effort to implement policies, so let’s start by looking at the various benefits of putting them in place. The major advantage to having defined ways of doing things in an IT environment is that of ensuring that processes are carried out in a consistent way. IT managers and staffers can develop, document, and communicate best practices related to how to best manage the environment.

Volume 7: Virtualization, Patch Management, Provisioning

Virtualization refers to the abstraction between the underlying physical components of an IT architecture and how it appears to users and other devices. The term virtualization can be applied to network devices, storage environments, databases, other portions of an IT infrastructure, and servers. Simply put, server virtualization is the ability to run multiple independent operating systems (OSs) concurrently on the same hardware.

Understanding Virtualization

The concept of running multiple “virtual machines” on a single computer can be traced back to the days of mainframes. In that architecture, many individual computing environments or sessions can be created on a single large computer. Although each session runs in what seems like an isolated space, the underlying management software and hardware translates users’ requests and commands so that users can access the same physical hardware. The benefits include scalability (many virtual machines can run simultaneously on the same hardware) and manageability (most administration is handled centrally and client-side hardware requirements are minimal).

Volume 8: Business and Help Desk Processes

An important characteristic of successful businesses is a strong alignment of the efforts between multiple areas of the organization. This arrangement rarely occurs by itself—instead, it requires significant time and effort from organizational leaders. The end result is often the creation of processes that define how all areas of the enterprise should work together to reach common goals.

The Benefits of Well-Defined Processes

Business processes are put in place to describe best practices and methods for consistently performing certain tasks. Often, the tasks involved will include input and interaction of individuals from throughout the organization. Before delving into details and examples of processes, let’s first look at the value and benefits.

There are several valuable benefits of implementing processes. The first is consistency: by documenting the way in which certain tasks should be completed, you can be assured that all members of the organization will know their roles and how they may need to interact with others. This alone can lead to many benefits. First, when tasks are performed in a consistent manner, they become predictable. For example, if the process of qualifying sales leads is done following the same steps, managers can get a better idea of how much effort will be required to close a sale. If the business needs to react to any changes (for example a new competitive product), the process can be updated and all employees can be instructed of the new steps that need to be carried out.

Another major benefit of defining business processes is related to ensuring best practices. The goal should not be to stifle creativity. Rather, it’s often useful to have business leaders from throughout the organization decide upon the best way to accomplish a particular task. When considering the alternative—having every employee accomplish the task a different way—consistency can greatly help improve efficiency. Additionally, when processes are documented, new employees or staff members that need to take on new roles will be able to quickly learn what is required without making a lot of mistakes that others may have had to learn “the hard way.”