Interview with Massimo Ferrari, Management Strategy Director at Red Hat

Automation is the arm capable of doing actions but you also need eyes and a brain — like in the human body

Gabriela Motroc
automation
Massimo Ferrari

Massimo Ferrari, Management Strategy Director at Red Hat believes that automation is one of the most powerful technologies in IT. Should we embrace automation or should we fight it? What are its advantages, disadvantages and misconceptions? Is automation alone enough to steer the digital transformation journey in the right direction? Let’s find out!

JAXenter: John Danaher, a lecturer in the School of Law at NUI Galway told us last year that “resisting automation seems both futile and undesirable.” Do you agree with his statement? 

Massimo Ferrari: It’s human nature to question big changes. When automation was first introduced in manufacturing, workers were afraid that they might be replaced by machines and opposed its adoption. But standing still and not evolving has never been an option. Automation has forever changed the way we manufacture goods, has disrupted the job market and advanced society in many ways.

Thanks to its ability to simplify and serialize a broad range of actions, automation is one of the most powerful technologies in IT. Through simplification and serialization, organizations have the potential to reduce the cost of existing services and to build far more advanced ones. In this sense, automation is providing value to the lines of business those services support and lays the foundation to build more and more of those services. Consequently, adopting automation is not merely a technology choice, but a business choice.

I see no point in resisting automation. Without automation, supporting the growth of a business can be increasingly complex, to the point of becoming impossible beyond a certain scale.

JAXenter: Should we embrace automation or should we fight it? What are the advantages and disadvantages of automation?

Massimo Ferrari: If we agree that software is eating the world, as Marc Andreessen said in 2011, and that every company is becoming a technology company, as Gartner said in 2013, then we must agree that automation is a must-have.

Automation should be embraced as a building block for better, more advanced services. A tool that should be in the hands of the entire business, not just of the IT organization.

Large scale always comes with high operational complexity. To manage this combination of scale and complexity, organizations need a new set of tools which, most definitely, includes automation.

Through automation, we can optimize IT operations, reduce waste, orchestrate sophisticated services, reduce complexity, and mitigate human errors on repetitive tasks. Ironically, the ability to manage a large number of systems at the same time has its potential drawbacks; such as a higher risk of spreading faulty patches or misconfiguration at scale, in a fully automated environment. This is why this risk must be mitigated by pairing automation with more sophisticated management systems able to validate configuration or check the stability of an update, to identify and prevent such possibilities from occurring.

JAXenter: Why do organizations still struggle with automation, although they feel they need to adopt it to stay competitive?

Massimo Ferrari: Automation isn’t hard. Automation technology used to be terrible; requiring programmers to understand the subtleties of operations, followed a system of write once/execute many, allowed no chance for iterative flow/updates and didn’t give the users the opportunity to become involved with improving the automation. With modern automation tools, we now have options.

Understanding the process that is to be executed is still really hard, and organizations are not going to get it 100% right on the first attempt. The automation technology of choice must make improvement easy, or you risk losing out in a big way on the potential of what automation can bring.

JAXenter: Is automation alone enough?

Massimo Ferrari: IT automation is a fundamental building block for modern infrastructures, but it is just one of the many elements that organizations require as part of the digital transformation journey.

Automation is the arm, capable of doing actions. But, like in the human body, you need eyes, (e.g. analytics tools) to direct the actions in the right place. You need a brain, (e.g. a management platform) to identify the right action to do, and so on. You wouldn’t get far without all of these elements.

Many people believe that IT automation’s reach is limited to the operating system and its capabilities narrowed down to configuration management. This was mostly true for the first generation of IT automation tools.

JAXenter: Why is enterprise-wide automation still elusive for most organizations? Is automation necessary to successfully manage modern IT environments?

Massimo Ferrari: The main reason is that IT organizations are still undergoing a transition towards more comprehensive management of an improved and integrated IT infrastructure. This transition requires first and foremost a change in the mindset of IT operations. They need to move, for example, from managing systems to platforms, from silos to APIs – the list goes on.

Cultural changes are never easy to achieve — they require time and commitment.

This new generation of infrastructures, which are the target of most organizations, are capable of supporting unprecedented scale. Large scale always comes with high operational complexity. To manage this combination of scale and complexity, organizations need a new set of tools which, most definitely, includes automation.

JAXenter: What is the biggest misconception about automation?

Massimo Ferrari: Many people believe that IT automation’s reach is limited to the operating system and its capabilities narrowed down to configuration management. This was mostly true for the first generation of IT automation tools. However, modern tools, like Ansible, have the ability to go wider in terms of supported infrastructure engines (e.g. hypervisors or infrastructure as a service engines), go higher in the application stack (e.g. interacting with databases and middlewares), or even deeper into the IT stack (e.g. automating networking appliances).

JAXenter: Give us two examples of successful case studies.

Massimo Ferrari: The British Army

The British Army is using Ansible Tower by Red Hat for automation and orchestration. With the new Ansible automation-based system, the Army has accelerated its pace of change by 75 percent. Upgrades that used to take a day can now be achieved with high availability in less than two hours and can be scheduled after hours. Emergency patches that used to take approximately three days can be implemented in a matter of hours. Overall, changes can be delivered now four times faster, on average, based on the British Army’s internal calculations.

NASA

Nasa is using Ansible Tower by Red Hat to manage an environment spanning multiple virtual private clouds and AWS accounts. Updating nasa.gov went from over 1 hour to under 5 minutes. Patching updates went from a multi-day process to 45 minutes. Ansible contributes by providing better operations and security to clients. For example setting up an application stack went from 1-2 hours to under 10 minutes per stack.

Thank you very much!

Author
Gabriela Motroc
Gabriela Motroc is editor of JAXenter.com and JAX Magazine. Before working at S&S Media she studied International Communication Management at The Hague University of Applied Sciences.

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