Automating The IT Factory

Efficiency demands technology, and now it's IT's turn to learn that lesson
Once an inventory is complete, then comes the question of how to store that information so it can be used to monitor, manage, and automate IT processes. A variety of industry organizations--the Distributed Management Task Force, the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards, and the Open Grid Services Architecture--are trying to develop standards for communication and implementation of automated IT operations. Computer Associates, EDS, Opsware, and Tibco Software are backing one XML-based framework, but IBM, HP, Microsoft, and Sun Microsystems aren't part of that effort. IBM Tivoli is working with another group to try to create a standard closely related to the Information Technology Infrastructure Library, says Jeff Smith, VP of demand automation.

Some companies look to the Information Technology Infrastructure Library to help them define specific business processes and translate them into appropriate IT applications and services, which can be managed and automated. Within ITIL, common practices across areas such as change management, configuration management, and release management have been documented.

Using ITIL descriptions of IT functions may help the departments put more of the focus on the business value of their IT factories. "They all speak to a process-based approach to a problem that's very service oriented," says Jim Grant, VP and general manger of Remedy. "In IT organizations, the product is service. The most appropriate nomenclature for that service is that it's a business service--not a network service or a desktop service or Unix service, but a business service that can be handled more efficiently and cost effectively."

Automating the IT factory, if it works, will mean fewer people doing wires-and-pliers and "sneakernet" kind of jobs, running around a company doing hands-on troubleshooting. Bill Ashton, director of IT for the town of Herndon, Va., says a process approach lets him automate some tasks and turn over others to users, including setting up voice-mail accounts and programming their telephones. "I do see [automation] increasing," Ashton says. "When I started in this business, there was usually one support person for every 15 to 20 folks, and now there's more like one to every 45 to 50 folks."

That scares some business-technology professionals, who worry that their jobs will be in jeopardy if many of the tasks they do today are automated. The rosy view is that those resources will be deployed to more-valuable roles. "We'll never have enough people to fulfill our IT mission," says University of Wisconsin's Jelinkova. "As you deploy more automation, it brings people up the ladder. A high tide raises all boats."

Perhaps not all, IDC's Grieser says. "It ultimately means less IT manpower per deployed application," he says. "If you can automate some of the more routine functions, which has been happening over a long period of time, then the specialists will focus more on the exceptional conditions."

Some people will need to "reskill" to stay in the IT field, IBM's Smith says. "We're moving to a much more complex situation that requires a lot more knowledge," he says. "They'll have to understand how the big picture works. There will be a shift from sitting and installing software and looking at screens and almost being a robot to higher-value, design-type efforts."

For business-technology managers, it means thinking ahead and methodically planning for ways to automate the management of their systems and networks. "Ultimate responsibility continues to be on the shoulders of IT," IDC analyst Stephen Elliot says. "Sure, that CIO is seeing some good return on his investment, but that's sort of step one on a 50-step process."

Which means many businesses have a long way to go before they have IT factories that compare to most manufacturing operations. "Manufacturing has been around at least 100 years, depending on where you start," says Dennis Drogseth, an analyst with research firm Enterprise Management Associates. "High technology is really about 25 years old in any meaningful sense. People like to think of technology as being born in a garage and mature the next week, but that's not the general rule."

As a result, more businesses are beginning to embrace an IT factory mind-set and tackle the technical obstacles, standards uncertainty, and financial restraints. They're automating more IT systems and processes, freeing up resources to focus on new cost-cutting and revenue-generating products and services, IDC's Grieser says. "It not only will happen, but is happening now," he says.

That, after all, is the ultimate goal. Improving the efficiency and effectiveness of IT systems--boosting utilization rates, cutting costs, reducing downtime, speeding up application and patch deployments--are important and worthwhile goals. But those improvements are designed to deliver what's really important: the information, the applications, and the business services that employees use to give customers what they want.

--with David M. Ewalt, Martin J. Garvey, and George V. Hulme

Illustration by Steven Lyons

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