Why collaboration is vital for achieving ‘automation nirvana’

25 Jun 2024

Image: © lidiia/Stock.adobe.com

Red Hat’s Aidan Beeson discusses the major trends in automation and its relationship with the defence sector.

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For Aidan Beeson, automating IT has made up the majority of his professional career. Currently a solutions sales specialist in enterprise automation at Red Hat, Beeson has had extensive experience in the sector, primarily working on defence contracts for the British Army.

His first project was writing an automated patching and update framework for deploying and upgrading British Army UNIX servers across 450 global sites.

“Regular soldiers administered these systems, both at their home base and out in the field, so the upgrading and day-2 operations had to be as user friendly as possible,” he says. “Hence, we relied heavily on automation.”

Following this project, Beeson concluded that automation provided three main benefits: it made life easier for those who had to interact with IT systems, it reduced human errors and it encoded specialist knowledge that others could build on.

‘Automation has evolved from solving an individual’s pain points to an enterprise-wide approach’

Using automation to combat defence pressures

Beeson’s self-admitted “IT automation obsession” was further utilised at British Army headquarters through a series of projects such as introducing Linux-based platforms into the army’s Windows-based data centre and evaluating new automation tooling to support cross-functional DevOps practices.

According to Beeson, the defence sector uses IT automation to “combat the same pressures as other industries”, such as making the best use of resources and ensuring projects are completed and delivered “quickly and reliably”.

“Defence IT infrastructure and services are often disconnected from public global networks, either in private datacentres or mobile platforms (such as ships),” he explains. “Automation simplifies and standardises the management of disconnected IT resources, enabling more efficient and reliable operations carried out by non-specialist staff.

“In scenarios where IT systems are supported by service personnel, there can be a high turnover as staff members are reassigned to different roles on short notice. Automation enables knowledge of systems and procedures to be codified, ensuring continuity of service and simpler handovers when staff are rotated into IT support roles.”

In short, Beeson says that automation makes “doing the right thing easy”.

Business and security

“Automation has evolved from solving an individual’s pain points to an enterprise-wide approach that benefits multiple teams,” says Beeson.

“As enterprise IT moves through the automation maturity levels, we see a greater emphasis on aligning automation endeavours to business strategic initiatives beyond simple DevOps.”

He says that for automation specialists, reporting the business benefits of relevant IT initiatives has become a high priority. “Metrics require automation architects to quantify the ‘before’ state and the ability to report against the defined KPIs [key performance indicators] easily,” he says. “Accurately quantifying metrics such as time saved and reduced costs adds extra burden to automation platform owners, so we are seeing more interest in platforms that can provide this level of automation insights.”

As for integrating security in automation, Beeson says that security can enable operating procedures and IT security regulations to be “maintained without affecting innovation or velocity”.

“Often the security tooling and associated agents required to monitor systems can be challenging to maintain and upgrade so are frequently neglected. Orchestrating tasks against these digital assets in automated workflows efficiently ensures that security and compliance requirements are met and consistent.”

According to Beeson, one of the risks of an enterprise automation platform is that it can access “high-value IT assets with highly privileged accounts”. As a result, he emphasises the importance of the platform providing sufficient controls to ensure that the automation code of the platform is part of an internal secure supply chain, where “only approved content can be executed by authorised users on authorised endpoints”.

Challenges of collaboration

While automation has its benefits, implementing the technology can have its fair share of pitfalls.

Beeson says that one of the main challenges of implementing automation is getting different teams to collaborate on creating automation content. He explains that engineers and developers often have their own preferred programming language or tools and can be reluctant to share content or learn something new.

“A lack of collaboration prevents the ‘automation nirvana’ of removing humans from complex processes, dramatically reducing automation benefits,” he says. “Individuals tend to be reluctant to contribute if they don’t have confidence in the automation tool or platform.

“Automation content developers want the automation language to be easy to learn, compatible with their technology choices and provide control to ensure the content they contribute is not misused or modified.”

Trends and predictions

When it comes to the future of automation, Beeson has no shortage of thoughts and predictions for the sector, especially relating to the role of automation in defence.

“Defence is not immune from the ‘move to cloud’ trend, so hybrid cloud automation is becoming ever more prevalent in the sector,” he says, adding that this brings challenges to deploying and managing platforms and services across multiple domains and cloud technologies.

“Using a consistent enterprise-wide automation platform to standardise deployments and day-2 operations across on-premise and clouds helps to bridge skills gaps and securely streamline operations. Automating legacy platforms and services helps accelerate the move to hybrid or full-cloud deployment.”

Beeson says there is growing collaboration between British defence departments – army, navy and airforce – as well as growing requirements for defence contractors to work together. With this in mind, Beeson says that compatibility between automation content generated by different suppliers is “vital”, particularly when it comes to supporting emerging tech such as AI.

“A good example of this is the number of systems that need to be upgraded when a ship returns to port,” he says. “I was speaking to a large defence contractor that is just one of many separate teams across multiple organisations that need to upgrade and maintain digital assets on ships.

“Currently, the process is a siloed effort, with various touch points between functions, increasing the lead time to complete the tasks required to make the ship ‘seaworthy again’. The nirvana would be a fully automated, end-to-end, orchestrated workflow that all teams could contribute to, with compatibility and standardisation built in.”

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Colin Ryan is a copywriter/copyeditor at Silicon Republic