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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

Eric Litt, chief information security officer for global computing and telecommunications services at automaker General Motors Corp., remains wary. He'd like to connect all the company's firewalls to a security-operations center where software, such as intrusion-prevention systems, could dynamically shut down malicious activity on the network. But he's not ready to take that step. "Do you want to be the one who automatically shuts down the wrong thing?" he asks. "I don't think the technology is mature enough that you can do this yet."

Litt's reasoning says a lot about why leaders of the IT factory are just now embracing some of the efficiency strategies that have propelled other parts of an organization. Information security is a relatively new discipline, and it takes time before it's predictable enough to be automated. "The rate of evolution in information security hasn't [kept up] with the rate of evolution in technology," Litt says. "Hardware has Moore's Law. We need a Moore's Law for security."

Vendors such as BigFix, Citadel Security Software, Configuresoft, IBM Tivoli, Patchlink, Shavlik Technologies, and St. Bernard Software offer applications to automate deployment of security patches, but it's a tough sell. "We've tried to implement automated patching, but you're relying on Microsoft's ability to produce reliable patches," says Randy Oehrle, network administrator for the city of Overland Park, Kan. There are too many variables to trust a completely automated system, such as determining whether a system rebooted properly after the patch was installed, ensuring that systems requiring patches are on during the deployment process, and whether a patch was successfully installed, Oehrle says.

Business-technology managers aren't likely to start their automation efforts with security systems, even if they know they have to move toward greater efficiency. Sometimes the challenge is in figuring out where to start.

Klara Jelinkova, manager of operational integration and support for the 60,000-student University of Wisconsin at Madison, advises an incremental approach. "Put in one process and make it work. See how it makes a service really good end to end," Jelinkova says. "Then change and configure, one at a time, create the template and methodology, and you're ready for the next process."

The university's IT department runs Wiscnet, which provides Internet connections and infrastructure for the state's K-12 schools, as well as other colleges in the state system. It also runs the Madison campus network, which serves students, faculty, and administrators, as well as researchers around the country. It uses HP's OpenView network node manager to monitor the two networks and OpenView service desk to handle workloads between application handoff points, Jelinkova says.

Once IT shops start this process, many find easy initial gains: Most servers, storage devices, and networks aren't being used as efficiently as possible. Server-, storage-, and network-utilization rates can be increased. Systems-, storage-, and network-management software lets companies treat resources as coming from a single pool that can be reallocated automatically to applications as they need them. Software, whether a new operating system, an application, a security patch, or a virus update, can be distributed and installed quickly and with less work.

But getting beyond one-off improvements to a broader IT factory mind-set of continuous improvement is more difficult. One obstacle is that an industrywide language to describe IT operations--such as the Information Technology Infrastructure Library, a framework for defining the business process--is still evolving. Many standards are still in the stage where various vendor camps are tossing barbs (see story, p. 38), and many individual tools solve specific problems but don't work well with other tools. The massive management frameworks of major vendors don't easily integrate with products from rivals.

The steps involved in automating the IT factory are well known: Inventory business-technology systems, monitor them, manage them, and automate as many of the processes as possible. Getting from here to there is the hard part.

For many companies, the first step in building an IT factory is taking a detailed inventory of their IT assets. Once managers know what they have, they can focus on improving how the systems and equipment operate. "The more moving parts, the greater the distribution in terms of where the computer components are, the larger the management challenge becomes," says Tim Grieser, an analyst with market-research firm IDC.

Automated asset-discovery software can help. Without the means to document the enterprise environment and the relationship among the elements of the IT infrastructure, a mere list of assets isn't very valuable. "Manual documentation of such complex environments takes a lot of time and is prone to error," says Blair Wheeler, VP of marketing for Relicore Inc., which makes automated configuration-management software. "And by the time you do get one passed through, it's already out of date because these things change very quickly."

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