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What to consider in scaling automation for distributed cloud

Infrastructure automation accelerates IT ops, fosters innovation and creates competitive advantage -- but executive support is essential, especially in complex cloud environments.

The digital era of business has generated a direct connection between IT operations, digital services and revenue creation.

According to an Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG) report, 59% of organizations identify data as being their business; in other words, they generate revenue directly from digital products and services. That includes organizations that rely on IT services to collaborate and operate effectively, as well as to engage with and support customers. For contemporary businesses, IT operations translates to revenue opportunity, and accelerated IT operations translates to even more revenue opportunities.

Efficient execution of IT operations creates competitive differentiation in the marketplace. Given this connection, almost every organization's executive leadership has a vested interest in accelerating operations and, ultimately, innovation. With that goal in mind, how can businesses establish and maintain their IT differentiation for a significant period of time?

To figure out the answer, it is important to acknowledge the following:

  • Businesses cannot achieve a sustainable competitive edge by simply spending or hiring more. Budgets are not unlimited, so the objective is to maximize innovation attained per dollar. A strategy based on hiring more or always hiring "the best" is unsustainable and increasingly difficult to implement. In ESG's annual study of tech spending and decision-making, 54% of organizations said they face problematic skill shortages in IT or cloud architecture and planning, and 27% reported such shortages in application development or DevOps. Investing in the right people, with the right experience, is a smart move, but given that most organizations have a similar approach, it is difficult for this step alone to provide a competitive edge.
  • Adopting public cloud services is essential to accelerating innovation, but using the cloud is not enough in itself. Cloud use is ubiquitous today. Simply adopting public cloud is "table stakes" and is no longer a differentiator.

Smart personnel and the right services and infrastructure provide the foundation. Now, IT leaders are starting to look more closely at implementing automation to get the most out of their people and technology.

ESG recently conducted a research study of digital organizations employing IT, DevOps and app dev professionals who are responsible for evaluating, purchasing, managing and building application infrastructure. Almost all of those organizations (99%) said they had needed to accelerate operations over the last three years. When ESG asked which steps they were taking to respond to this requirement, the most common answer (47%) was increasing investments in automation and AIOps.

Automation initiatives and open source projects such as Ansible and Terraform are becoming increasingly popular, and organizations often reap immediate benefits. Those benefits, however, can diminish quickly as environments scale to the distributed cloud, spanning multiple public clouds, data centers and edge locations.

The culprit is complexity. As application and infrastructure environments span multiple locations and teams, complexity mounts, limiting the rewards of automation. Ensuring that automation initiatives continue to meet expectations across distributed environments often requires IT and application development leadership teams to implement the right processes and standardization.

When driving IT infrastructure automation initiatives within your organization, consider the following three points:

  1. Automation is a practice, not a project. The transition to automation is much more difficult than it sounds. Over the past decade, innovation acceleration was often accomplished by moving traditional IT practices and approvals out of developers' way. Shifting from a top-down bureaucratic approach to freeing developers to choose their own tools and use cloud resources autonomously has led to huge successes in accelerating IT service delivery and developer velocity. But now, with decision making distributed among multiple two-pizza teams of developers, businesses struggle with tool sprawl and complexity when scaling automation efforts and best practices. Automation must be an accepted and adopted practice across the organization, with the right processes in place to track KPIs, measure success and implement changes when necessary. These processes, however, cannot impede operations; they must focus on keeping acceleration gains on track and improving on those gains.
  2. Collaboration is the rule, not the exception. In a research study conducted earlier this year, ESG found that organizations founded 10 or fewer years ago were twice as likely (60% vs. 29%) as organizations over 20 years old to have IT teams routinely and proactively collaborate with developers. Older firms were more likely to have collaboration occur on a project-by-project basis. As the scale and complexity of modern, distributed cloud application environments grow, project-by-project thinking is unsustainable. Application environments can quickly change and evolve, and collaboration must be constant and encouraged from the top, down.
  3. Build an automation practice that embraces different personas, such as provider vs. consumer. Personnel that deploy infrastructure, configure systems, establish protection polices and ensure availability have different sets of needs and require different levels of control than developers or app owners who use the infrastructure. Organizations should develop practices that use tools and APIs that allow different infrastructure automation personas, providers and consumers to focus on their needs in a manner tailored to them. One-size-fits-all approaches create undue complexity and hinder efforts at scale.

In ESG's conversations with thought leaders and IT executives, the ability to transition infrastructure automation from a localized project to a more global practice is often a key differentiation between businesses that maximize the value of automation and those that simply reap localized benefits. For example, HashiCorp -- the company behind Terraform -- recommends a phased approach to automation practices, with an emphasis on standardizing and scaling automation workflows to gain the greatest benefits.

Establishing a competitive edge requires accelerating both IT operations and innovation. One of the most powerful ways to achieve that acceleration is through infrastructure automation. Successful automation across the distributed cloud cannot be delegated down the chain. It is up to executive leadership to establish the practices and standards necessary to achieve and maintain automation's benefits as the organization scales.

ESG is a division of TechTarget.

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