Automation vs Orchestration? Wrong Question.

Automation is no longer enough. Digital business requires the orchestration of end-to-end, automated processes that accelerate data and business results.

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Automation and orchestration are necessary for rapidly automating new business and IT processes.

Going Beyond Automation

Automation is a key component of modern IT strategies. It enables IT to minimize manual processes, increase efficiency and reliability, and stay ahead of a growing list of responsibilities (there’s always more data, applications, and systems for IT to manage).

Organizations are digital ecosystems containing dozens –hundreds– of applications, platforms, and systems, some located on-premises, some located in a private or public cloud. In order for the organization to function, data needs to course through multiple departments and environments.

That’s the new challenge presented to IT –how to manage data across systems and teams with disparate technologies and compliance requirements.

Traditional IT automation strategies place a focus on reducing human intervention in basic, routine tasks and processes. To do this, many organizations rely on point solutions and custom scripts.

“Most Gartner clients report that they have at least eight tools among their overall automation tooling portfolio…. These tools frequently are deployed and utilized in silos, and may be duplicated.”

-Gartner, How to Start Executing a Successful Automation Strategy, April 2020

The problem with this is that, in order to manage data between those silos, another solution is needed –oftentimes, custom scripts, which hamper efforts to rapidly develop and iterate longer running processes.

As a result, IT teams are moving towards solutions that provide low-code, cross-platform automation. These solutions go by many names –including workload automation, SOAPs, intelligent automation, and iBPMS– but they all offer a common capability: orchestration.

What Do You Mean By Orchestration?

The more complex IT becomes, the more IT needs to coordinate tasks, dependencies, and permissions across disparate applications and systems. Automating those single tasks is only the first step.

Orchestration refers to tasks assembled into end-to-end processes that can pass dependencies and variables downstream. This can be accomplished with, for example, a workload automation solution that provides a REST API adapter, direct integrations, or universal connectors, making it possible to integrate virtually any application, tool, or technology.

The orchestration solution can then be used to coordinate existing automation tools that longer running processes rely on, or to consolidate those tools where possible. 

This offers several key advantages:

  1. Processes and systems can be centrally monitored for improved ITSM, disaster recovery and prevention, and process optimization
  2. Permissions can be centrally managed, and audit trails can be applied across the enterprise, simplifying governance
  3. New tools and technologies can be rapidly integrated into existing environments, enabling the organization to quickly adapt to new trends
  4. Innovative processes and services can be quickly brought to production by coordinating DevOps, automated testing, and automated release lifecycles

First Automation, Then Orchestration

Automation rose to prominence in computer systems as the tasks IT had to execute became too numerous to handle manually.  Some decades later, and a similar issue has arisen -there are too many processes, applications, systems, and environments for IT to manually manage. The slightest human error or faulty script, and a critical process can quickly fail and impact the business.

Orchestration tools abstract away the complexity of automated processes by turning the underlying code into building blocks. This makes it possible for developers (and operators and entry-level administrators) to rapidly assemble new, cross-platform processes without having to rely on custom scripts.

This is, in part, what Gartner refers to as hyperautomation –a strategy that exploits new technologies to rapidly automate and innovate new processes.

Automation and orchestration shouldn’t be positioned as mutually exclusive because it isn’t a choice of one or the other, but whether IT is willing to take its automation further by orchestrating new and existing processes.

“By 2024, organizations will lower operational costs by 30% by combining hyperautomation technologies with redesigned operational processes.”

-Gartner, Top 10 Strategic Trends for 2020

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Automation and Orchestration in DevOps

Automation and orchestration are both a benefit to DevOps and driven by DevOps. Task automation, for example, is typically applied to existing tasks with little attention given to the optimization of the task -it needs to be automated, it gets automated, and then it’s forgotten.

By shifting automation left in the DevOps cycle, business processes can be designed as automated processes, taking full advantage of the orchestration tool’s capabilities in order to optimize and orchestrate processes from the start.

IT orchestration tools offer a suite of features that support agile DevOps practices. This includes:

  • In-depth analytics and visual workflow designers that show dependencies to support continuous delivery and process optimization
  • Change management facilities to streamline app deployment and continuous delivery
  • Providing process simulation to ensure that processes execute successfully prior to production
  • Check-out/check-in with conflict resolution tools to support continuous integration
  • Full audit trails, revision histories, policy authorizations, and credential management to streamline compliance and governance

Cloud Automation Orchestration

Automation is key to cloud management, for example, provisioning and deprovisioning cloud services based on real-time demand. But cloud processes rarely exist in a bubble -many organizations still maintain on-premises data centers, running processes across hybrid cloud environments. Maintaining a hybrid cloud environment is nearly impossible -or at least illogical- with only scripts.

Furthermore, as organizations become more reliant on cloud services, many find themselves moving towards multi-cloud configurations (Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud, for example) in order to avoid vendor lock-in, deploy new technologies faster, and better manage IT costs.

Cloud orchestration makes it easier to manage and maintain automated processes that span hybrid or multi-cloud environments. IT operations teams can use orchestration platforms to centralize monitoring across environments, manage microservices, in the case of CPU spikes, automate the provisioning and configuration of servers on-demand.

Additionally, cloud orchestration enables developers to automate repeatable processes throughout the DevOps lifecycle. End-to-end processes can be assembled to manage container orchestration through Kubernetes or to manage virtual machines in VMware during testing, for example.

Choosing the Right Orchestrator

Gartner recently introduced a new term, service orchestration and automation platforms (SOAPs), in order to distinguish traditional workload automation (WLA) solutions from WLA solutions that provide extensive API adapters, drag-and-drop workflow assembly, and machine learning to optimize processes and process placement.

“SOAPs expand the role of traditional workload automation by adapting to cloud-native infrastructure and application architecture. These tools complement and integrate with DevOps toolchains to provide customer-focused agility in addition to cost-savings, operational efficiency and process standardization.”

-Gartner, Market Guide for Service Orchestration and Automation Platforms

A common issue in technology procurement is that, after a new solution is deployed, the IT team realizes the solution does not easily integrate with existing platforms -or, moving forward, that the platform does not provide integration with necessary new technologies.

By leveraging a workload automation solution with nearly infinite extensibility and endless use cases, IT teams can integrate and orchestrate any application that meets business needs today or in the future.

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Brian is a staff writer for the IT Automation Without Boundaries blog, where he covers IT news, events, and thought leadership. He has written for several publications around the New York City-metro area, both in print and online, and received his B.A. in journalism from Rowan University. When he’s not writing about IT orchestration and modernization, he’s nose-deep in a good book or building Lego spaceships with his kids.