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Automating storage processes
Process automation initially began with business applications like manufacturing. It made its way into IT to automate complex server and network management tasks. Only recently has this technology been applied to storage management.

Instead of trying to provide one tool that does it all, IT process automation links disparate tools across multivendor infrastructures and cross-management domains, providing a centralized portal to request, execute and monitor IT management operations.

There are no clear-cut criteria to determine if a company will benefit from process automation. But the following indicators can be used to identify whether an IT process management solution should be considered:

  • Size and complexity of the environment. Large companies with more complex environments will benefit more from IT process automation than smaller companies. Smaller companies may be satisfied by workflow capabilities built into point management products that address a specific need.

  • Degree of change. The degree to which the IT infrastructure is growing and the frequency of changes to that environment are generally good indicators that standardizing and automating storage management processes will yield tangible benefits.

  • Outsourced

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  • functions. Storage management tasks outsourced due to their operational complexity are also candidates for IT process automation.
To achieve near-term success, the automation effort should be limited to something that's realistically deployable and shows immediate payback within three to six months (see "Implementation tips," below). In addition, today's process automation tools aren't ready to be deployed throughout the entire data center. Some IT process automation solutions are strong in server or network automation but weak in storage, while others are strong in storage and weak in other areas. For example, automating all aspects of tiered migrations, including the identification of infrequently accessed data, is probably beyond the capabilities of available technology.

The cost of IT automation tools varies, with standalone IT process automation tools tending to be more expensive than storage management tools. But workflow (process automation) is becoming a standard part of some storage management tools at no additional cost. Microsoft's Windows Workflow Foundation is a .NET Framework 3.0 service that will make it easier for application vendors to deliver workflow capabilities within their products.

Implementation tips
Make sure you can easily integrate the tool into your environment. Out-of-the-box workflows greatly accelerate deployment, but only if they're appropriate to your environment. Some organization and process change is inevitable, but the workflow needs to accommodate changes to work with your process. If the tool enforces its process on you, building support for it within your organization will be much more difficult.

Limit the scope of implementation. Tools that automate all IT processes (application, desktop, server, network, storage) sound attractive. To get a quick win and demonstrate the viability of the solution, choose a process that has a reasonable chance of success.

Invest in deployment services. IT automation products are relatively easy to install and use; the complexity is in the customization of the specific workflow. Professional deployment and training services will dramatically decrease implementation times for the majority of automation products.

This was first published in May 2008

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