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How does automation help individual system operators?

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How does automation help individual system operators?

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One of the core values of enterprise automation is its ability to decrease the labor burden on individuals. Traditional system operators are one of the biggest sets of beneficiaries of an automated system. They benefit directly from the migrations and changes that leave smaller or mundane tasks in the hands of automated services.

Over time, the roles of system operators have changed. In the early days of digital computing, there was a direct need for skilled hands-on administrators. These system operators were commonly referred to as “sysops.”

As networking technologies have evolved, network administrators have come to play a very important role. The idea of sourcing teams to handle servers became common – all of these administrators are still important, but because of automating evolution, they may not do the volume of work that they had done in the past.

In a Turbonomic blog post, Eric Wright discusses “time recovery” and suggests that “any automated process has a primary benefactor.” Wright suggests that using the right calculations, businesses can estimate how much work automation saves or how much time recovery is applicable.

The value of automation has also led to differences in how administrative services are provided.

One example is illustrated in a Rackspace blog post from 2014 on various Rackspace managed cloud options. In this post, which chronicles the evolution of Rackspace customer service characterized as “fanatical support” Rackspace contrasts “managed infrastructure” and “managed operations.” Managed infrastructure will simply support the cloud foundation while the client company actively manages the system. Managed operations will bring either a “sysops” approach or a “DevOps” approach according to the client’s needs. The “sysops” or systems operator approach will retain more features related to giving human attention to network components. The “DevOps” approach will integrate more automation, while making servers into manageable groups.

While the benefits of automation are evident in many situations, some critics are pushing back against the idea that automation is currently driving systems toward perfection.

On the “Personal MBA” blog, Josh Kaufman describes the “irony of automation” – the idea that more automated systems can actually be harder to troubleshoot in some cases, simply because systems operators may not be paying as much attention.

To back up this idea, which goes against the grain of the conventional wisdom on automation, Kaufman talks about the “new normal” in an automated IT environment. There's the idea that if human administrators feel redundant or don't have enough to do, they won't be as vigilant looking for problems in the system. The solution, Kaufman writes, is ongoing and relentless sampling and testing. Kaufman questions how administrators can be kept engaged enough to catch errors early, and keep on top of problems when they do occur.

Detractors notwithstanding, most businesses would agree that automation is the way of the future, with the caveat that of course the rigorous standards around vigilance should still apply. In general, businesses can reap the benefits of automating tasks, and evaluate automation tools to understand the return on their investment in automation and how well it supports their business.

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Written by Justin Stoltzfus
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Justin Stoltzfus is a freelance writer for various Web and print publications. His work has appeared in online magazines including Preservation Online, a project of the National Historic Trust, and many other venues.
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