MSPs have long looked for ways to automate their internal operations to efficiently deliver services to clients. As the COVID-19 pandemic and difficult economic environment continue, managed services automation has gained greater appeal.
Investment in automation technologies is now essential to improve productivity, cost efficiency and security in IT operations, said Adam Turner, head of commercial at Spherica, an IT services provider based in the U.K. With the right automation strategy, IT environments can scale quickly with fewer errors and organizations can react to changes in business demand.
"Quite simply, automation is vital, as the complexity in IT environments continues to grow," Turner said.
MSPs can tap a variety of technologies to automate operations, including Red Hat's open source Ansible Automation Platform. Ansible enables IT automation across cloud, on-premises, and virtualized and containerized environments.
MSPs typically use automation to deliver more consistent services, reduce human capital and develop more repeatable and uniform processes, said Warren Zweigart, senior product manager of the Ansible partner program at Red Hat.
"The most common use case is automation [that supports] the move to hybrid cloud as a way to run an MSP's day-to-day business," Zweigart said. "That's a similar model that we would see with any other enterprise trying to automate and do … more with less."
The Ansible platform can serve as an abstraction layer for public cloud platforms, added Colin McNaughton, principle technical marketing manager of Ansible automation at Red Hat. With Ansible, MSPs or their end customers can automate cloud user provisioning, he said.
Ansible's benefits for managed services automation
Spherica deployed Ansible internally about a year ago. The company likes that the platform is agentless, which means it doesn't require software to be installed on the nodes that it manages, Turner said. This capability is vital for managing distributed IT environments, he added.
The platform's infrastructure automation enables Spherica to simplify the management of complex IT infrastructures, improve security and resilience, and increase the productivity of its technical delivery team.
Ansible automates many low-level, repetitive tasks that can eat up time and energy, Turner said. This frees up Spherica's system administrators to work on higher-value tasks and service improvements.
"In our experience, any task that a system admin does repetitively can be automated with Ansible, from system updates and backups to routine server restarts," Turner said. "It also enables us to deploy changes across multiple servers at one time, significantly reducing the time and effort involved in managing complex deployments."
Ansible can also standardize processes, making it possible to complete tasks with the click of a button, which reduces the risk of human error, he added.
IBM GTS builds automation framework on Ansible
IBM, which purchased Red Hat for $34 billion in 2019, has integrated Ansible into its Global Technology Services (GTS) organization, a division of IBM Services.
IBM GTS has deployed Ansible technology across approximately 800 customer accounts worldwide, said Maheswaran Surendra, vice president and CTO of cognitive services delivery at IBM.
The organization's Infrastructure Services Delivery program aims to provide a unified automation framework to clients. That framework, known as the Cloud Automation Community Framework (CACF), is built around the Ansible platform. The framework uses additional Red Hat technologies and other integration components.
"[Ansible] allows us to consolidate our approach to various … use cases, such as automated incident remediation, patch management, security parameter health checking [and] enforcement, software license discovery, server configuration control and automated service request fulfillment," Surendra said.
GTS' client base is quite heterogeneous, which required the company to develop a deployment model that would work across different geographies and large clients, he said. In addition, the deployment model needed to work with smaller dedicated instances for clients with contractual or regulatory restrictions.
Adam TurnerHead of commercial, Spherica
These instances run on top of a cloud or in an on-premises environment. "CACF is containerized and runs on top of Red Hat OpenShift, which allows us this deployment flexibility," Surendra said. "While the framework itself is reasonably standard, it allows for important flexibility -- namely, for the client-specific delivery teams to tailor the [CACF] content … to meet their individual needs."
An Ansible wish list
In terms of how Red Hat could improve the Ansible Automation Platform, Surendra said IBM GTS would like to see a capability to better manage performance and capacity.
"I think this can be done with more extensive instrumentation of the different components inside Ansible Automation Platform … so we have a better view if bottlenecks are developing [and] how that can be communicated back to the underlying container management platform so that we avoid potential performance problems," Surendra said.
He noted that a more detailed capacity management capability would help with the vastly different types of jobs that run on Ansible. "For instance, event-triggered incident remediation is typically targeted at a single endpoint [and] security parameter health checking may be run against many servers in a client's estate," he said. "Understanding how resource consumption varies for these different classes of job types will help manage capacity in the face of variable input demand on the system."
While IBM GTS can examine basic information on job logs in Ansible's dashboard, the technology lacks a flexible reporting capability, Surendra said. "We currently extract data from Ansible … and send it to an external system where we can create the types of reports we need to manage our service."
When Spherica needs to implement nonstandard processes, the company turns to the Ansible user community for help, Turner said. He noted that Red Hat also provides direct support to Spherica.