Automation, Orchestration, and DevOps in Today’s Data Center


Automation and orchestration are two terms we are hearing more often, especially when discussing virtualization and cloud computing. As virtualization and cloud computing technology continues to mature, so have the automation and orchestration that are such an intricate part of the solutions presented from this technology. As such, an increasing number of products and services are built around automation and orchestration. This article focuses on the underlying technology as a prelude to discussing the different products. The information below should be of interest to anyone looking to expand their skillset to compete and excel in a technology world that is traveling full speed up into the clouds.

Let me start with the title: automation and orchestration are the key terms and technology used in what is commonly referred to simply as automation. In reality, there is quite a bit of difference between the two terms. The most simplistic way to differentiate between them is to look at them like this: You automate a task and you orchestrate a process. They are not the same thing, yet they share a lot of the same characteristics and benefits. The overall benefits may be achieved by one or the other or a combination of the two.

Installing an application, restarting a service, rebooting a server: these are all tasks that are automated. There are plenty of other examples, but this should give you the general idea. How do these tasks help build the orchestration? Let’s say, for example, that you have automated a task to install or launch a web server. To orchestrate the process, several other steps must be taken along the way. The first automated task is to open a change request in the CMDB. The next is to request an IP address from the IP management system. The automated task after that is to install the web server and assign the IP address that was requested. From there, the next automated task is to update the configuration item or CI record with the new IP address and then finally close out the change request. As you can see, several automated tasks help create the orchestrated process. I like to use a LEGO® analogy: automation is like the LEGO pieces, and orchestration is what the LEGO pieces create. As you can see, there is clearly a difference; when done right, the two technologies play off one another to result in streamlined, more accurate execution of operational processes that speed up successful deployments.

Now that we have reviewed the difference between automation and orchestration, it is worth tying in the correlation between DevOps and orchestration. How does orchestration relate or correlate to DevOps? In a nutshell, a well-orchestrated IT process enables and empowers continuous integration and delivery that, in a perfect world, would unite the different teams to work together in the creation of a set of templates that meet all the requested requirements. These templates are in many ways like a living document or process that embodies the DevOps philosophy. Automation is a technical task, orchestration is an IT workflow composed of tasks, and DevOps is a philosophy that empowers and is powered by sophisticated, orchestrated processes. Easy peasy, right?

In theory maybe, but in reality, DevOps is a philosophy that needs to be applied by all, not just a few. That is where the difficulty can lie: with the skillsets of the different teams and the politics involved. Everyone has to be involved and working together to live by and work by the DevOps model in day-to-day operations, as does every company and organization stage involved in implementing automation and orchestration in the production environment. Some organizations have only begun the cloud automation process, and smaller organizations may still rely on a single individual or team to be the orchestration “brain” coordinating IT processes. (One can imagine what happens when this single individual gets hit by a bus or leaves the organization.) On the other end of the spectrum, organizations that orchestrate automation tasks into standard but flexible IT workflows under a single monitoring and orchestration software interface are true DevOps shops. Bringing it all together, you have established automation and orchestration with DevOps philosophy in the modern-day data center.

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Steve Beaver
Stephen Beaver is the co-author of VMware ESX Essentials in the Virtual Data Center and Scripting VMware Power Tools: Automating Virtual Infrastructure Administration as well as being contributing author of Mastering VMware vSphere 4 and How to Cheat at Configuring VMware ESX Server. Stephen is an IT Veteran with over 15 years experience in the industry. Stephen is a moderator on the VMware Communities Forum and was elected vExpert for 2009 and 2010. Stephen can also be seen regularly presenting on different topics at national and international virtualization conferences.

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