In-Depth

Process Automation for the People

Automating IT processes can help keep your staff focused on critical tasks, but starting a project involves inherently complex decisions.

IT is certainly not immune to the enterprise-wide drive for efficiency. As data processing and information management burdens grow, you have a larger network, more servers and a greater variety of applications than you did a year ago. You have more users with desktop systems, more mobile workers to support and more devices on your network.

However, your team is very likely the same size or smaller. If you're at a small organization, your team may consist of-well, you. Business revenue is strained by higher costs for gasoline and supplies, so few enterprises are going to add to an IT department that's not a direct revenue-generator.

Yet there is a glimmer of hope. Chances are good that you have a number of well-defined processes in IT. These processes may include provisioning a system for a new employee, resetting passwords, requesting new applications and addressing help desk support queries. Many of these processes are simple and easy to follow, but you're still wasting your time by doing them manually.

Repeat if Necessary
It's time to bring automation to your processes. Existing business process management (BPM) tools, some of which you may be already using in your enterprise, can take you part of the way to that goal. There are also new workflow tools that specifically target IT processes. The result is a greater reliance on automation, better productivity within IT and better service within the organization as a whole.

"You can take an activity that takes hours or days, and reduce both the time and human effort that it requires," says Matt Merservy, product manager at Symantec Corp.'s Security and Endpoint Management Group.

But there's more to it than efficiency. By automating processes, you get repeatable processes and the potential for refining best practices. Automation helps you get something done the best way, every time. Because it's automated based on a standard mode of operation, it also reduces the possibility of error.

You may be able to leverage automation to help other groups throughout your enterprise. You can boost any process that touches IT or its systems with IT workflow. This includes time-off request and approval systems, distribution list setup and approval, and new employee orientations. Any multistep activity that touches your enterprise systems is a candidate for automation.

Yet IT workflow automation is about more than plugging manual processes into a computer. In many cases, you have to more precisely define the process, ensure that it's properly documented and make allowances for contingencies and errors. You'll have to rigorously test processes to ensure that the documented procedures are actually the ones being followed. Only then can you apply automation in a large scale.

Then there's the human element to consider. When there's an existing process, workers tend to take ownership of their particular part of that process. Introducing automation to a business process can disrupt the control people feel they have over their roles and responsibilities. It's important to bring in all applicable stakeholders early and get their buy-in for the automation plan.

The Right Tool for the Job
Workflow automation can be a big job. Fortunately, the nuts and bolts of actually adding the automation tools might be the easiest part. General-purpose BPM tools like Microsoft BizTalk and rules engines like ILOG make decisions and execute workflows. You may already have these types of tools in house, so availability and expertise make them convenient alternatives.

However, a general-purpose automation product is usually not the best choice to automate an IT process, says Charles Crouchman, CTO of workflow vendor Opalis Software Inc. "Those tools really aren't designed to work with IT systems," he says. "Just because you already own them doesn't mean they're the best tools for the job."

Figure 1
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Figure 1. Altiris Workflow Solution lets you visually build a workflow that integrates with a variety of different IT tools.

General-purpose automation tools lack key features needed by IT. BPM products are often tied heavily to Web services, which are more common for processes where several applications already do part or even all of the work. Traditional BPM products are more appropriate for efforts that combine automated work with strategic software packages and significant manual efforts. They're often designed to work with the Business Process Execution Language (BPEL) or similar Web service orchestration.

It makes sense to seek out tools that work more like IT does. These types of function-specific tools provide interfaces to popular IT tools, a clean and simple scripting or programming interface for other tools, and the ability to both define a workflow and orchestrate tasks.

There's a new generation of process-automation tools that go by the generic term of "IT workflow automation." Generally, workflow refers to the step-by-step procedure by which you and your team can accomplish a complex activity. In IT processes, those steps could be running a tool and collecting the results, running a script to execute a specific task, or some type of manual effort.

Still, it's not easy. IT workflow automation encompasses heterogeneous systems, departments and tasks. You have to coordinate all these to deliver and support specific IT services. These services include areas such as fault management, change management, system and application lifecycle management, and maintenance procedures.

These are complex and exacting processes, so it's critical to establish a strict lifecycle for workflow and automation design and implementation. Selecting a workflow tool or set of tools is near the top of the priority list. In some cases, it can make sense if an existing tool fits into the IT architecture.

For example, even though it's not an IT workflow-oriented product, BizTalk has some of the features you'd need for IT automation. For one thing, it gives you a means for connecting to different systems and applications as it comes with a large set of adapters for different types of systems and packaged software. It also provides for orchestration so you can execute tasks in a specific sequence or at a specific time, in order to complete a complex activity.

IT-specific tools give you more out-of-the-box capability for administrative activities than general-purpose products. A new solution from Symantec's Security and Endpoint Management Group (formerly Altiris) promises to streamline the ability to build automations. The Altiris Workflow Solution helps non-technical professionals create, change, test, automate and manage IT processes in the organization.

The Altiris Workflow Solution presents a graphical environment for laying out workflows. There's also a forms editor for building interfaces with little or no scripting required. You can connect it to many common IT administration tools and run it through the Altiris Task Server for automatic fulfillment. If a specific adapter is missing, you can connect via Web services, a .NET interface, a SQL database or flat files.

Figure 2
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Figure 2. Opalis Integration Server provides an executive Dashboard that shows the health and status of all automated processes.

Alternatively, Opalis has an Integration Server that lets your IT staff easily map out and execute a workflow. The key feature here is an IT executive Dashboard that gives you a high-level overview of active automations. It shows you which ones are running, their status and how much time they're saving you. This gives you a high degree of visibility into your automation efforts and should help you continue on the quest to identify and implement new automation.

In some cases, the IT group may outsource the design and implementation of workflow automation, often to a business analyst or BPM consultant. It's important that IT fully participate in process definition and test the end result of any automation. It does make sense, though, to have an objective party build the automation. That way, it's built as it's defined, without any preconceived notions or biases based on personal or organizational preferences.

Defining and Implementing IT Processes
The first step in developing a process workflow is often the most difficult. Much of this step is non-technical in nature. It involves selecting the process, making sure it's rigorously defined and understanding its technical requirements. In many cases, administrators or engineers can compensate for poorly defined or imprecise steps through individual skills and experience.

While you might have devised a workflow using a straight edge and flowchart template in the past, those days are gone. Precise steps, timing and order are necessary to build successful IT automation. The minimum starting point is a diagramming tool like Visio that also lets you add information to each step of a process.

A good interview technique and a thick skin are also mandatory. An automated IT workflow can be technically correct, but there are a number of circumstances where it would be a business failure. An automated process works with a combination of other IT tasks, human tasks and IT systems, so getting the right information from the right person or system is essential -- and invariably more complex than it sounds.

Take provisioning a server as an example. In a small IT shop, it's likely that one or two staffers will order, install, image, customize and test a new server on an as-needed basis. Under these circumstances, automating the provisioning process likely has minimal payback. There's probably no reason to do things differently.

But in a large enterprise, server provisioning is often spread out across three or more IT departments, each with different goals. A typical workflow has IT generating a purchase request, IT purchasing the server, a system admin setting it up, acquiring and installing an image from the storage group, and connecting it to the corporate network with the help of the networking department. It can take days, or even weeks.

That's the kind of process that's ripe for automation. Any automated process has to invoke the purchase request-generation system, obtain management approval, issue the purchase order, receive the server, set up the server, obtain network credentials, load an image and customize the resulting install. It's easy to see just how complex this can be.

Some of those steps are automatic, some are manual and some are a mixture of both. According to John Oldham, principal at consultancy Oldham and Ruby, it's common to automate and integrate highly variable tasks. "It will never be a clean set of steps," he says. "In some cases, you have to work closely with individual IT staff members to tease out the exact steps and sequence. That's where failure is most likely to occur. It's almost as much art as science."

Building an automated process for server provisioning won't make all the steps happen automatically. Unpacking and setting up the server are physical tasks that will remain so. Existing systems can do just about every other step, though, by processing in a specified sequence. Even managerial approval can be automated to the point where an e-mail is generated and sent to the responsible manager, who simply has to reply "approve" or "reject."

Getting the Most from Your Efforts
Creating and implementing automations of your IT workflow often requires a willingness to cross traditional IT boundaries and change the way you've always done things. Once you start down the path of automation, you'll have to take a close look at your processes to better define them and change them if necessary. It may require bucking tradition and questioning known and long-established practices.

While you'll have to understand IT and the details of its processes, diplomacy and negotiating skills are equally important. Your technical skills won't take a back seat in automating your processes, but you had better be ready to both reassure your staff and compromise in certain areas.

Lastly, you shouldn't rely on homegrown ways to enable automation. Ad hoc scripts running sequential tasks on different servers or networks frequently fail, and passing data via those scripts or other mechanisms between steps of the process is a recipe for lost data and broken automations.

The payoff for all your efforts can be significant. Many common IT tasks are both time-consuming and labor-intensive; automation can help address both these issues. It can preserve your staff's talent for more important and strategic work, which can satisfy their needs for professional development. If it's handled with diplomacy and the right tools, the bottom line is automation can be both successful and worthwhile.

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