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Frequently asked questions about server automation tools

Server automation tools save time and reduce errors. But what should tools offer, and are point systems or suites the way to go? Find out in this FAQ.

Server automation tools can reduce errors, ensure compliance and free up precious time for strategic IT projects.

Enterprise-class servers deliver value when properly managed. Just consider a small sampling of routine server management tasks: inventory, configure, provision, balance workload, patch, update, roll back if necessary and track performance during service lifetime.

Server management demands can be overwhelming for enterprise data centers with many servers, especially in virtualized data centers, spurring the rise of server automation tools. Here are some of the most important questions surrounding server automation.

What data center challenges or problems can server automation tools solve?

Server automation software performs a variety of server management tasks that would otherwise require the direct or manual attention of IT professionals.

The biggest issue with servers is the time burden. Each aspect of server management demands an IT administrator's time and attention -- and every server multiplies time required. IT talent is so consumed performing a host of relatively simple tasks -- "fighting fires" -- that they are not able to focus on other projects.

Another common issue that plagues manual server management is human error. Even an expert IT administrator makes mistakes. For example, a busy administrator might forget a server's configuration -- easy to do with dozens or hundreds of different systems -- and omit an important patch. Human errors cause poor workload performance or compromise security and compliance on servers.

Server automation software relies on scripts and templates to overcome the problems most frequently encountered with manual work. For example, each time a process is executed by a script --workload provisioning, perhaps -- it's done the same way. This increases consistency, eliminates variations between administration styles, and minimizes errors and omissions. Companies can better control provisioning, security and compliance. Valuable IT staff is free to focus on evaluating new technologies, improving data center architecture and working on projects that add value to the business.

What should a server automation tool do?

Server automation tools typically support server setup, deployment, provisioning, inventorying, patching and compliance -- plus a rich array of status and reporting capabilities. All server automation tools should handle virtualized and cloud-based servers to some degree.

A server automation tool's actual features and capabilities vary radically depending on the vendor and the product's scope. No two server automation tools are the same. Test and evaluate potential purchases against your business's needs analysis. For example, if you manage myriad heterogeneous servers, choose a tool capable of supporting automation across server brands.

If you have a virtualized data center, choose a tool that can inventory the hardware and software elements of the server and suggest system upgrade opportunities or identify patch candidates. Some products will even list those systems as "non-compliant" until the proper updates are deployed.

Use basic automation features to achieve strategic data center initiatives -- accelerate test and development processes, support server lifecycle management, track energy use or automate problem resolution. Without automation, errors or oversights from manual intervention are assured. Automation tools speed up and simplify provisioning using familiar elements such as VM image files, with fewer errors.

Server automation software can also migrate underutilized workloads onto highly consolidated servers, then place unneeded systems into a low-power mode to reduce energy costs. It is extremely difficult to perform such assessments and migrations manually.

Should I go with a suite or a point tool?

The choice between a suite and a point tool really depends on the best avenue to meet the businesses' needs. Just as the features and functionality of server automation tools vary, the infrastructure or data center requirements are also diverse. There is no specific organization size or server count to delineate what type of server automation tool is best, but more servers generally mean more demanding management goals.

A server automation suite typically requires servers to host each automation module using a suitable operating system, a database, a compatible web browser and a compatible report writer.

Point tools are relatively inexpensive, easier to install, easier to use and require a much smaller computing footprint than automation suites. This makes point tools more attractive for smaller businesses. But point tools are rarely comprehensive, so you could end up with several point tools installed -- each from different vendors with different graphical user interfaces and learning curves. There is also no guarantee that various tools will work together.

By comparison, a software suite provides a comprehensive, highly integrated set of server automation capabilities from one vendor. This could offset the higher cost and additional upfront set up and configuration effort that go into suites.

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