Building The IT Factory: IT as a Service Hinges On Process Automation

From determining business needs to defining and pricing a service portfolio to meet them, transitioning your organization’s IT operation to an IT as a Service (ITaaS) model is a complex and challenging process. A crucial aspect of that transformation that you may not immediately focus on is the need to automate the delivery of those services.

The fact is, ITaaS is an empty promise without process automation. It is the only way IT can meet users’ demands for consistent services in an agile, on-demand timeframe not typical of the traditional IT model of the past.

After establishing a service portfolio and launching our ITaaS catalog at EMC, we are in the process of developing an end-to-end global orchestration process to automate our service delivery. While we are still evolving our system, what follows are some of the insights we have gained over the past year.

What is global orchestration?

Global orchestration is the catch-all phrase for conducting IT service delivery in an automated fashion. To be effective, it has to be considered from an end-to-end perspective. That means a global orchestration tool must manage the total service delivery, from the request/approval to the final fulfillment of the order.

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The greatest challenge in choosing an automated global orchestration product is finding one that will integrate with the hundreds of subsystems that exist at any customer location. Over the years, most organizations’ data centers have grown and evolved to include multiple automation tools. These can include asset management, service management or IP address management tools, network configuration tools, and directory services.

Your orchestration tool needs to be able to deal with all of them. For example, at EMC we rely on multiple automation tools put into place at the siloed service level some years ago. Now that we are taking a more holistic approach to IT services, we don’t want to stop using those tools because they are effective for specific components of IT. Our global orchestration capability is built around coordinating the sequencing and successful use of those individual automation capabilities.

Orchestration technology emerged about three years ago and while there are many such products on the market, customers need to carefully evaluate their capabilities—particularly their ability to interface with the many different subsystems. The technology is still evolving to meet that important requirement.

At EMC, we have successfully implemented our global orchestration system using VMware products, along with some custom in-house development solutions using our SpringSource software development platform. SpringSource helped us fill gaps where our non-custom orchestration tool did not integrate with some of our subsystems. We are continuing to work with VMware to develop a fully standardized orchestration process by the end of 2013.

Why it’s needed

The benefits of automated global IT orchestration can be compared to those gained when we automated factories in past decades. Essentially, what we are doing is enabling the “IT factory.”

Much like factories prior to automation, IT service operations had traditionally been a very hands-on, labor-intensive process. We ran much like a manufacturing job shop—craft based, with skilled product construction process, largely informal, singled-threaded, and with low, first pass yields.

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The goal with automated global orchestration is for IT to create a low-touch delivery system, which requires us to become very process-based and able to handle many requests simultaneously. This will allow us to accelerate our service delivery time as well as improve our cost of quality.

Think of the automobile assembly line, which has evolved from having many people performing hands-on tasks to having robots do much of the work. The process had to be standardized and pre-defined. The results were efficiency, speed and cost savings.

In fact, as we began our orchestration journey a little more than a year ago, we developed a new IT role that is generally associated with manufacturing—the process engineer. In this instance, the process engineer provides an end-to-end view of IT service delivery, optimizing and standardizing components and processes.

We know we can’t eliminate the need for custom IT services. Some application requirements still warrant specialized development. However, the fact that we are offering a standard service that can be delivered in minutes rather than months is likely to inspire users to rethink their need for customization.

Where to begin

Automating your IT service delivery is complex and takes a lot of planning. My advice is to start with automating a few small and fairly simple services and use the experience gained in those pilot efforts to help define your new service delivery model to guarantee success.

EMC IT chose to focus our efforts on two services—Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) and Virtual Desktop Interface (VDI). We had offered both of these services to users for several years before automating their delivery.

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IaaS enables users to rent a virtual machine (VM) for a given period of time in order to have a compute platform on which to conduct development or testing operations.

Say, for example, an engineer wanted to evaluate a piece of software.  Previously, the user would have requested a VM through our Business Technology Group, which would have invoked the build process through IT planning. It would have taken 8 to 10 days and considerable manual work for the VM to be delivered.

Through automation orchestration, the user can now go directly to our ITaaS catalogue, pick from a list of VM offerings, add their selection to a shopping cart, and have their VM delivered in roughly 20 minutes.

Similarly, the delivery of VDI—which allows users to have secure access to their EMC desktop remotely—has been reduced from 48 hours to 15 minutes.

We are prioritizing the onslaught of user requests to automate some 40 additional IT services on our current roadmap. These requests fall into one of two categories: to automate services already listed in our service catalogue or more general requests from business groups that want to automate some of their manual processes.

For example, we have been asked to automate our open port request process, generally initiated by Sales on behalf of customers who want to access a specific internal system to get information about their EMC products. Currently, this takes up to five days to deliver because it requires a labor-intensive security process. With automation, we hope to deliver on such requests in 20 minutes.

The expected gains from global orchestration are substantial. Based on automating 40 services, we project to remove 30,000 labor hours of menial and error-prone manual work from the IT operation on an annual basis.  This will allow us to continue absorbing business and IT consumption growth without having to add to the IT staff and will also free up staff to work on more advanced tasks that are not as easily automated. Additionally, automation delivers higher service quality by minimizing cycle time and increasing the consistency of results and eliminating human errors.

About the Author: Norm Simmonds