In-Depth

Automation Nation

IT workflow-automation products could be the key to accelerating your day-to-day IT tasks and helping you build IT processes.

We all use tools to automate and accelerate the day-to-day IT tasks that make up much of our workload. PowerShell and other scripts help us sequentially execute commands on servers or across servers. We can even set up timers to automatically execute the scripts at predetermined times, or in response to other events.

Ultimately, however, scripts and similar automation solutions only address part of the automation issue. They can't perform multiple tasks in sequence, pass data among those tasks or allow for human input and intervention.

That's where IT workflow software comes in. These tools are an outgrowth of general-purpose business process management (BPM) tools. They let you take multiple tasks and arrange them into a workflow. Workflow tasks can include operations on servers, desktops or executing scripts. Your workflows can also include manual operations like filling out and sending an e-mail form or letting a manager check an approval box before further processing.

If you have myriad tasks buried within your processes, and you have to perform each task individually, then you're a candidate for workflow-automation solutions. Either Symantec's Altiris Workflow Solution or Network Automation's AutoMate BPA Server 7 could serve your needs well, depending on your focus and skill set. If your workload is growing too large, automation may represent the only practical solution to bringing it back to a manageable level.

AutoMate BPA Server 7
REDMOND RATING
Installation 20%
9.0
Documentation 20%
7.0
Tutorials 20%
10.0
Features 20%
10.0
Ease of use 20%
9.0
Overall Rating:
9.0

——————————————
Key:
1: Virtually inoperable or nonexistent
5: Average, performs adequately
10: Exceptional

AutoMate BPA Server 7
You probably have at least one book on scripting sitting on your bookshelf or desk. If you're like me, you've never quite mastered the topic and may not have even cracked open the book. Beyond basic scripting and creating batch files, I've just never found the time to learn all that code and syntax. If that sounds like your situation, Automate BPA Server 7 may be the answer.

Network Automation's AutoMate BPA Server 7 is a multitiered client-server business process automation platform for Windows. With both client-side and server components, AutoMate facilitates centralized workflow development on the server and enterprise-wide deployment with clients.

The server piece is called the AutoMate BPA Server Management Console. This lets you create and manage workflows, users, agents, reports and various other options. There's also a repository of all previous development items, which simplifies using previously created tasks in future designs.

The Server Management Console has a crisp, clean, well-organized interface. You can create new processes and workflows with drag-and-drop actions using the Automate BPA Workflow Designer, which will seem like second nature to seasoned Windows users.

Figure 1
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Figure 1. Network Automation's BPA Server provides a graphical awy of linking steps in an IT workflow.

The client "agents" let you distribute your workflows throughout your enterprise. You can run your tasks on, or push processes to, the various agents. You can have as many agents installed in your enterprise as you wish, but you must have client access licenses for each agent concurrently accessing the BPA server.

AutoMate BPA Server 7 lets you manage users and assign different roles throughout the system. You can use existing Active Directory user accounts for your AutoMate deployment. You still assign the rights and roles through the Server Console, but it eliminates the need for multiple user accounts and passwords so your users can maintain a single sign-on environment.

Installing AutoMate BPA Server 7 was painless. You can download the fully functional 45-day evaluation from Network Automation's Web site. The 114MB self-extracting file has an installation wizard that walks you through the process. While the documentation is limited at best, there's a readme file with links to tutorial videos on the Web. Where the written documentation was lacking, the video tutorials set the standard. The initial tutorial walks you through setting up your first workflow. Other tutorials include such topics as agent deployment and managing users.

The Task Builder is perhaps the most intriguing piece of this package. With all the actions included, you're just a few drag-and-drops and right-clicks away from automating any nominal or complex task that normally consumes hours of time.

With more than 220 actions, the Task Builder includes encrypting and decrypting files, and can create Active Directory items; access dial-up networking connections; program functions like loops, start, stop and various XML functions; start and stop services; launch terminal emulation and even empty the recycle bin.

You can automatically create a Microsoft Excel workbook, which is a particularly helpful task. If you manually store a lot of information in your Excel files, you can have Automate BPA Server 7 do this for you. For example, I pull information from various departmental reports into an Excel spreadsheet to summarize and centralize the data for management meetings. I let BPA Server collect the data, merge it into my existing workbooks and automatically print the reports for me about 30 minutes before my manager meeting.

From the Reports section of the Server Management Console, you can create custom reports from eight different categories related to your workflows and processes. During the evaluation, I created reports to show the success and failure of task workflow execution. You can display reports in colorful, easy-to-read charts.

Automate BPA Server 7 is an ideal tool for the IT manager with too much on his or her plate. It can quickly and efficiently automate processes and workflows.

Altiris Workflow Solution
REDMOND RATING
Installation 20%
9.0
Documentation 20%
8.0
Tutorials 20%
9.0
Features 20%
10.0
Ease of use 20%
9.0
Overall Rating:
9.0

——————————————
Key:
1: Virtually inoperable or nonexistent
5: Average, performs adequately
10: Exceptional

Symantec Altiris Workflow Solution
The Altiris Workflow Solution provides a graphical environment for laying out workflows and a forms editor for building interfaces, with little or no scripting required. Non-technical professionals can use this tool to create, change, test, automate and manage IT processes.

It connects to a number of common IT administration tools. You can also run it through the Altiris Task Server for automatic fulfillment. If there's no specific adapter for your intended purpose, you can connect via Web services, a .NET interface, a SQL database or flat files

The complete Altiris Workflow Solution includes the Workflow Server, which lets you integrate and connect with other servers; and the Workflow Designer, a graphical tool for building workflows. Consider the Workflow Designer the development tool, and the Server the execution environment. There's also an Enterprise Server option, which adds a Web portal, mobile forms and a messaging bus. I used the simpler Workflow Server for executing automations, although if you need to work with mobile devices and do highly complex automations, you'll want to use the Enterprise Server.

You can download the product from the Altiris Web site for evaluation. Installing the Workflow Designer and Server was easy, and only took half an hour. Configuring the server took a bit longer, because you have to make sure it has access to the systems upon which it has to execute tasks. For example, if it has to send an e-mail, it needs access to Exchange, as well as an e-mail address to use. If it has to execute a script on a server, you need to make sure it has the ability to get to that server and privileges to do so. Depending on the complexity of the workflows you want to execute, it could take some time to configure the server.

Figure 2
[Click on image for larger view.]
Figure 2. Symantec's Altiris Workflow Solution lets you easily build complex workflows for execution.

I spent most of my time in the Workflow Designer, where I set up several different workflows as potential automations. Before you sit down with the Workflow Designer, however, it's important that you thoroughly research the process you want to model. If you're discovering new things about the actual process as you're modeling it, it can be slow and arduous work.

Once you understand the process, using Workflow Designer to build the workflow is a breeze. You can define individual tasks, which are represented as glyphs in the workspace. There's an enormous range of tasks that you can instruct a glyph to perform. Basically, if a task can be automated, you can configure Workflow Designer to do it.

There are a number of predefined components that accelerate workflow building. You can select these components from a palette, place them on the design canvas and configure them to do just what you want them to do. Generally, the best approach is to consider each component as the equivalent of an IT task. You could also consider it an action if it's normally a manual step. You may find you have to break IT tasks down into multiple workflow components, but starting with a one-to-one relationship between IT tasks and the automation step provides a good benchmark for adjustments.

With almost no experience using the tool, I laid out a simple three-step workflow in less than an hour. For my workflow, I created a form and executed off a script based on data entered in that form. More complex IT processes will surely take longer to build and debug, but the Workflow Designer gives you a highly efficient means of creating almost any workflow IT may require. Perhaps the bigger challenge will be the cultural one -- getting the owners of the process to agree to automation and to work toward that goal.

Once you have your workflow designed and debugged, the Workflow Server can execute your new workflow. Install it on the server, make sure access and permissions are properly set and the server takes care of the rest. The workflow is usually started by an external event including an e-mail, alarm or timer.

Adapters are a big part of the Workflow Designer. In addition to the adapters that provide access to current Altiris/Symantec tools, you can also access common productivity tools like Microsoft Office and make database calls using a wizard. If you'd like to connect to a third-party tool that doesn't have a defined adapter, you can either use Web services with an HTTP/SOAP interface, or build your own interface using Microsoft Visual Studio and .NET technology.

The bottom line with Altiris Workflow Solution is that it works, and works well enough to save you a lot of time. If you have IT processes that require two or more steps, and those steps take up a significant part of your day, then the time you'll save by automating those processes with Altiris Workflow Solution will quickly add up.

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