What is IT automation?

IT automation describes the use of software to enhance business IT by creating repeatable processes, reducing the need for human action in IT systems.

In terms of using technology to improve productivity, true automation has always been something of a holy grail. From the time that the term was first coined in the mid 1940s to describe new advances within the mechanized production lines of the automobile industry, the idea that machines may be able to perform human-level tasks accurately and effectively has revolutionized nearly every industry. The advent of the digital age expanded on these possibilities, bringing automation to computing systems and related components, in a process that came to be known as IT automation.

Also called infrastructure automation, IT automation empowers businesses to control the hardware more easily, software, networking components, operating system (OS), data storage issues, etc. involved in delivering information technology solutions.

IT automation, like most forms of automation, exists to perform repetitive, time-consuming tasks that would otherwise fall to human agents. While essential to the proper management of a business, many of these tasks require very little in terms of intelligence, creativity, or abstract problem-solving capabilities. When faced with these tasks, human IT staff may find them monopolizing their valuable time, preventing them from dedicating sufficient energies towards other, more strategy-focused responsibilities.

IT automation resolves many of these issues. By employing automation technologies such as AI and machine learning, IT automation can reduce the amount of manual work needed in data centers and cloud deployments, freeing up IT departments to focus on other vital tasks.

As the IT demands on businesses continue to increase, IT automation is becoming more than a novelty; it’s a necessary factor in allowing organizations to function in the increasingly fast and evolving modern IT environment. IT automation allows IT teams of all sizes to address emergent needs and expectations, quickly, effectively, and without having to significantly expand the organization’s IT talent pool.

Just as information technology may be applied to a nearly limitless number of different use cases, the potential application of IT automation is similarly expansive. Organizations commonly employ IT automation for the following tasks:

  • Cloud automation
  • Incident management
  • Resource provisioning
  • Application deployment
  • Network management
  • Security and compliance monitoring

There are many advantages associated with IT automation. These include the following:

Improved accuracy

Human error accounts for a sizable portion of all data errors and can create significant problems for organizations and their customers. Unfortunately, when data is being entered manually or tasks are being performed by multiple team members, consistency can be nearly impossible to maintain. Automation limits or removes the human element, ensuring that all tasks are being performed correctly, every time.

IT Automation Benefits | ServiceNow

Increased speed

Similar to the above point, even the most detail-oriented human will never be able to match the processing speed of a functioning computer system. Applied correctly, IT automation allows for faster IT operations than would otherwise be possible, noticeably reducing service and delivery timelines.

Reduced costs

IT automation, when used correctly, reduces the number of labor hours needed to complete IT tasks. At the same time, it empowers IT staff to use their time and accomplish more more-effectively. Taken together, these two factors result in fewer costs and increased returns for businesses that invest in IT-automation.

More-efficient use of time

Highly trained IT experts are worth the investment that organizations make to bring them on. That said, when those experts are then consigned to performing repetitive, manual IT tasks, businesses are not getting the most out of their skilled employees. IT automation takes these tasks off the IT professionals’ plates and gives them more time to spend on their other vital responsibilities.

Decreased security risk

Non-automated processes naturally require a larger number of users and others involved in managing potentially sensitive data. And, with each additional user, the risk of a security breach (intentional or otherwise) increases. IT automation cuts back on the number of users and managers needed to perform IT tasks. Additionally, automation may be employed to improve incident identification and response.

Despite the many benefits available through IT automation, it does carry with it certain risks. Here are a handful of disadvantages to be aware of:

Increased impact from errors

Automation programs are very unlikely to introduce errors. However, if an IT administrator makes an error in configuration settings, accidentally skips a step when programming automation for a complex task, or otherwise mishandles important foundational information, the IT automation program will proliferate those errors much further and faster than a similar manual error. Fully vetting automations before deploying them can help reduce this risk.

Inability to adapt beyond provided commands

Although automation may benefit from AI and machine learning, it is not, in and of itself, intelligent. Instead, it is designed to follow instructions—in the form of commands and scripts— to the letter. As such, when unexpected deviations occur, new priorities take hold, or emergent events cause even small changes, automated systems will be unable to pivot their functionality on their own to match new demands. Organizations must schedule recurring times to review, reassess, and revise existing automations. Otherwise, this automation will simply continue to function as they always have.

Substantial upfront costs

Although IT automation can help organizations save money in the long run, there is still the matter of initial costs. Simply put, IT automation can be an expensive investment, and it may take some time before these automation systems pay for themselves. Businesses should carefully evaluate whether their IT automation initiatives will provide enough of an ROI to offset upfront costs.

Getting the most out of IT automation depends on several different factors. Here are a few best practices to keep in mind when considering investing in IT automation:

Communicate and get buy-in

When introducing automation initiatives, it’s not uncommon for businesses to see reluctance from certain managers, departments, teams, and individuals. Fully communicating the benefits that IT automation will bring—not only to the organization, but to the team members as individuals—can help ensure that everyone involved is committed to its success. At the same time, working closely with teams and other stakeholders can provide invaluable insight into what kind of automation solution will be most beneficial.

Focus on usability and flexibility

The right IT automation solution should be capable of handling a range of different use cases. Likewise, it must be simple and usable enough to encourage users to rely on it. Focusing on usability and flexibility when choosing an automation tool helps guarantee increased adoption, and thus quicker returns.

Plan for long-term success

IT automation has the capacity to completely revolutionize even the most complex digital processes, but that doesn’t mean organizations should try to start with the most complex processes first. Instead, start small and plan for the long-term. Beginning with simple automation, creates valuable experience and helps uncover other automation opportunities. Businesses can then build on these wins to further implement IT automation in ever-more-complex use cases.

Document all processes

Clear documentation will help prevent overly complex solutions from taking root when simple ones will suffice. Likewise, a paper trail can make it easier to discover where errors may have been introduced if there is a problem with a specific automation.

Designate a team lead

Left to their own devices, teams may be slow to embrace IT automation. Galvanize them into action and create a champion of automation by selecting an IT automation team lead. The lead will take the responsibility for ensuring that IT automation best practices are being followed, proper documentation is being maintained, and that goals are in place and tracked throughout any areas where IT-automation is employed.

Select the right projects

IT automation can be employed in nearly any project—but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s always the right fit. Ongoing projects that include many repetitive tasks or that are prone to errors may be a good fit for IT automation. On the other hand, one-time projects or those that require a significant amount of customization may not benefit nearly as much from automation. Remember: Automation should not be a goal in and of itself; it should be a means to help organizations achieve greater success. If a specific automation project does not support that objective, then leaders should be willing to pass on it.

Build a strong case for IT automation

As previously mentioned, getting buy-in and support from teams, leaders, and stakeholders is necessary for a successful automation initiative. Make the case for IT automation by clearly identifying and sharing key benefits and connecting specific automation proposals to established business goals. Be clear about what the plan will entail, and break it up into more manageable pieces, so that decision makers will have an easier time comprehending everything it entails. Then, once the initiative has gotten off the ground, be sure to report back about any successes it produces.

The Now Platform, ServiceNow’s award-winning, cloud-based, workflow-automation toolset provides organizations with everything they need to achieve IT automation success.

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