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Hardware & Infrastructure
12:10 PM
Darrell Dunn
Darrell Dunn

Automating The IT Factory

Efficiency demands technology, and now it's IT's turn to learn that lesson

When it comes to churning out cars, clothes, or breakfast cereal, the notion of using automation to wring out costs and time is the foundation of modern manufacturing. When it comes to churning out information, keepers of the IT factory lag far behind their smokestack brethren in embracing such an obsession with efficiency.

An IT-factory mind-set is starting to take hold, however, thanks to cost-cutting demands on the IT department as well as a new generation of management tools. Those tools make it much more practical to link automation with policies, so business technologists can apply an automated process to hundreds or thousands of systems. These tools for managing systems, networks, storage, and security help managers automate more of the manual work and processes involved in running the IT factory--the collection of computers, operating systems, applications, networks, storage devices, and security systems on which businesses rely.

The need to automate and continuously improve how IT is run comes from the pressure to do more with less--78% of managers say getting a better return on IT capital investments is a top company priority, according to InformationWeek Research's 3Q Priorities survey of 300 business-technology managers. Business leaders are demanding that IT departments substantially reduce the time and effort involved in repetitive, laborious tasks--from setting up a server with an operating system and applications to deploying software patches on hundreds of servers to installing security updates for thousands of desktops--so IT pros can spend more time developing technology-enabled services and products and less on maintaining IT systems.

"I used to work 12 hours a day. Now I only work eight hours a day, and I can take a vacation," says Joe Bedard, systems administrator for Arctic Slope Regional Corp., an Alaskan native-owned company that helps companies that want to do business with native people in that region. Bedard's company deployed desktop- and server-management software from Altiris Inc. to automate the management of systems that provide data-center services for 2,000 customers. Altiris' products can automate a wide range of processes, including software deployment and patch management. "It has enhanced the morale of the IT group and allowed us to think more about planning and the future, and interface more with end users," Bedard says.

A trial program is helping electronics retailer Best Buy reduce the number of calls to its help desk, systems engineer Pete Krueger says. Photo by Raoul Benavides.

A trial program is helping electronics retailer Best Buy reduce the number of calls to its help desk, systems engineer Pete Krueger says.

Photo by Raoul Benavides.
Consumer electronics retailer Best Buy Co. uses Hewlett-Packard's OpenView Internet Services to monitor resources in its 600 stores. Each store has a server that controls 50 to 75 workstations, registers, or kiosks. Many of the in-store systems are used only by employees, but some, like the kiosks, let customers complete such tasks as customizing high-end computer systems or searching for the latest DVD or gadget. "We don't want any customer to come in and have a bad experience using any Best Buy device," systems engineer Pete Krueger says. "But a comprehensive monitoring of all the devices in our stores gets to be quite a challenge."

Best Buy has expanded its OpenView deployment of a trial program by installing OpenView Web agents at 50 stores in a trial program. The agents let IT staffers determine whether a problem is global in nature or limited to one store, and then automate many activities such as remote rebooting or manipulation of disk space to accommodate specific requirements. "It's helping us reduce the help-desk ticket volume," Krueger says. Best Buy hopes to expand the capability to all its stores by September.

Savings from improved efficiency often come from lower labor costs: Outsourcing IT services firm Inflow Inc. used to need one IT staffer for every 55 servers it manages. After deploying data-center-automation software from Opsware Inc., one IT staffer handles 200 servers. Quicken Loans Inc., an online mortgage-lending company, moved to a centralized storage system with automated management software from EMC Corp. and reduced the number of IT staffers devoted to managing storage from 15 to three. The easier access to information also helps cut the time to create detailed financial reports, from one to three days to two to eight hours.

Automation can also improve uptime: First Health Group Corp., a managed-health-care company that processes claims for 14 million customers, uses a variety of automated management products from Remedy, a BMC Software Inc. company, to reduce systems outages by 40%. The goal is to reduce outages by 90%, says Anthony Dulce, VP of production operations.

The challenge of monitoring, managing, and automating the IT factory becomes more complicated and more important as companies rely more on business-technology systems to run their organizations. Companies that do most of their business on the Web realize the need more than most.

Online travel company Inc. does more than 100 software deployments a month to enhance its Web site, and it uses automated application-deployment software from BladeLogic Inc. to ensure that the changes are consistent among its servers. The software lets Priceline roll out changes in half the time it needed previously and, in some cases, in as little as a quarter of the time. Priceline uses a variety of hardware platforms and operating systems, increasing the need for centralized management, CIO Ron Rose says. Integration is key to creating an efficient IT operation that's reliable and economical, almost acting as one entity, Rose says. "In many ways, it's like peo-ple used to look at mainframes," he says. "The more the tools feed data to one another in a consistent manner, the closer you get to an IT factory."

Yet the embrace of automation is a balancing act between control and efficiency, since some of the technology hasn't matured to the point that it's predictable enough to automate. Nowhere is the risk of failing greater than in information security. The costs of distributing and installing software patches to plug security holes is sapping IT staffs and budgets. But automating that process without thorough testing is asking for trouble, since some patches don't work as promised or create conflicts with installed applications, forcing businesses to spend a lot of time developing workarounds or uninstalling them. Still, some aspects of IT security are maturing enough that they may be ripe for automation, including setting up firewalls and updating virus signatures.

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