Given the right tools, automating computer operations can be surprisingly easy and can reap major benefits. Understanding these benefits—and some obstacles—will help you develop support for an operations automation project. A recent study by a leading trade journal asked the question, "What do you see as the most important benefits of an automated or unattended computer center?" The primary benefits of operations automation cited most often were cost reduction, productivity, availability, reliability, and performance (see the figure below).
Every business faces global pressure to increase their profitability. One approach is to reduce costs. But, reducing the capabilities of the computer center negatively impacts the entire company.
Automation software is a better and more intelligent approach to cost containment and reduction. The greatest opportunity is to increase service to the customer (end user) while systematically reducing costs. Management often overlooks this potential for savings. Most modern servers have a low operating cost and the total cost of ownership has been declining. Even so, the cost of the operations staff can be as high as 71% of the total cost.
As an organization’s technology demands grow, productivity becomes a bigger concern. Typically, as other business areas were given tools to increase their productivity and effectiveness, IT operations took a back seat. The proliferation of desktop productivity software has created substantial gains in the office and HR environments. But, instead of alleviating workload for the IT professionals in the back room, the spread of PCs has meant more tasks to be accomplished.
As people use computers more, they place greater demands on the system. More trading partners are generating more file transfers, and manual scripting has increased despite efforts to reduce manual tasks through automation. In spite of the trend to online client/server transactions, manual workloads continue to grow. File transfers are constantly being added as organizations and their business needs skyrocket to new levels.
Automated operations can resolve these issues in several ways.
File transfer automation software increases batch throughput by automating the production batch schedule of file transfers. In the early days, computer throughput was limited by how fast operators could reset switches on the console. The solution for today is not to allow the computer to idle while waiting for the operator to release the next file transfer job. You save time and money by eliminating the lag time between file transfers and minimizing operator intervention. In some instances, you can trim hours off your process, which lets you process more work and significantly improve system use.
Once a file transfer schedule is established, the automation software executes the workflows for these transfers precisely and in the correct sequence, eliminating operator errors. Forecasting file transfer completion and being able to quickly resume file transfers or troubleshoot failed transfers eliminates much of the guesswork from daily tasks.
Companies are continually more reliant on their computers. Day-to-day business is routinely conducted with online systems: order entry, reservations, assembly instructions, shipping orders—the list goes on. If the computer is not available, the business suffers.
Years ago, it was considered acceptable to have the computer unavailable for a few hours. Today, with the high volume of cloud computing, the outage of key systems can cost millions of dollars in lost revenue and tarnish a company’s reputation.
High availability is clearly one of IT management’s primary goals. Here too, automated operations can help. A disk drive may crash, but the situation becomes serious when there is not an adequate backup— or worse, the tape cannot be found. A key advantage to automation is the ability to automate your save and recovery systems to ensure protection from the potential disaster of disk loss, down file transfer systems, or inadvertent damage to system objects from human error.
In a networked environment, centralized management also makes sense. Remote resources can solve business issues while a single operator at a central console observes critical network functions. Continuous monitoring with a low CPU and communications overhead makes it easier to spot vital network performance trends and ensure high availability for critical file transfers and server connections.
Productivity is an obvious benefit of automation. However, reliability is the real gem that sparkles with automation. It is the cornerstone of any good IT operations department and without it you have confusion, chaos, and unhappy users. IT operations requires two opposed skill sets: On one hand, an operations person needs highly technical skills, such as the ability to understand the complexities of an operating system and to analyze and solve problems as they arise. On the other hand, this same person has to be content pushing buttons and loading paper.
Let’s face it, off-shift operations include some of the most boring, repetitive, and error-prone tasks of an IT organization. But, when you remove the human factor, you eliminate most batch processing errors.
Automated operations ensure that jobs are not forgotten or run out of sequence, that prerequisite jobs are completed successfully, that the input data is correct, and that any special processing is performed. All these types of errors occur in single-location organizations. Now, imagine a network of multiple systems, geographically dispersed that include multiple operating systems, communications issues, integrated local area network processing, and attached PCs. The chance for errors rises exponentially. The only way to make this type of environment work is automated operations.
Software can handle complex tasks dynamically and intelligently, based on predefined parameters. Yet, critical company functions such as releasing file transfer tasks, executing workflows, performing backups, and ensuring communications are normally performed by entry-level individuals within the IT organization. The benefit of an automated system is that these functions are reliably executed by the automation software, relieving operations personnel from hours of tedious, boring, and manual tasks.
Every company would like to have their enterprise perform like a thoroughbred. In reality, it is more likely to be overburdened with work. Even though advancements in computers make them faster and less expensive every year, the demands on them always catch up and eventually exceed the level of capability that a company’s computer infrastructure possesses. That leaves a lot of companies wanting to improve their system performance.
Two options to improve performance are to upgrade hardware or purchase a newer system—both expensive choices. It’s also possible to tune a system for better performance, but this takes a highly skilled person who is not normally available 24 hours a day. And, once a system is tuned for a specific workload, if the workload changes, the settings are no longer optimum.
Obstacles to Achieving Automated Operations
Operations automation results in higher productivity, reliability, availability, and increased performance and can reduce operating costs. Moving to lights-out file transfer operations yields a good return on investment. The benefits of automated systems can be a powerful motive for increasing service to your end users. However, it’s not an easy task. There are many pitfalls and many obstacles to overcome.
People always find excuses not to do something. A recent survey of IT operators asked why they hadn’t automated their systems. Answers ranged from the expected to the uninformed. The common answers were no money, no time, no coding expertise, or no staff. Some sample responses:
- "We don't have the budget and aren't familiar with the options available in the market."
- "Too little time and numerous issues that we would need to address."
- "Not necessary—I am in the process of writing my own code."
Of the companies surveyed, 43% have identified and placed operations automation projects on their calendar. That means 57% of these companies haven't recognized the advantages of automation.
Generally speaking, the obstacles to operation automation fall into two categories: cost and people. Two of the most common benefits are availability and reliability. Both of these factors are convincing arguments to proceed with automation projects, and normally supersede the need to cost-justify them. However, as projects advance, additional cost factors come into play. Additional investment in things such as automated tape librarians or automatic cartridge loaders, additional software, and messaging services may be required.
The companies that implement automated systems early often see positive bottom line results from their efforts. However, cost savings are not the primary reason to automate computer and file transfer operations. The focus should be on improving service to the end users. As the quality of this service improves with automation software, the costs associated with it also improve.
In-house automation solutions are often successful at first, but the scope is usually too narrow. Systems fail because of the maintenance and enhancements required to maintain and expand the automation process, and in-house automation solutions are expensive and typically are low priority in the IT department. This is why most internally developed automation efforts stall after achieving limited success. Many companies that go down this path eventually turn to off-the-shelf automation software.
Some personnel issues have surfaced as automation becomes reality. Many system operators view automation as a direct threat to their livelihood. Not having a strategy for handling staff concerns and managing staff participation is one of the easiest ways to fail at implementing automation. Computer operators who feel their jobs are in jeopardy can always find ways to defeat the testing, evaluation, and implementation of new automation software. Analysts see report automation tools as a threat. Plus, operation supervisors see staff reduction as a direct threat to their position and status.
No company wants to have a reputation for firing employees or have an environment of low morale and trepidation. However, some companies are changing so quickly today that attrition alone is not a viable solution. The answer is to modify the role of the computer operator. Give your operations personnel new responsibilities, such as operations analyst, networking technician, or PC administrator. As the old positions are no longer needed, the new technology gives rise to new and greater responsibilities. Companies need to realize this and maximize the talent they already have.