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Data centre evolution – the time for automation is here

Johannesburg, 16 Apr 2020
Robert Graham, Technical Team Lead at Obsidian Systems.
Robert Graham, Technical Team Lead at Obsidian Systems.

The need to save on day-to-day operational expenses and minimise physical and carbon footprints are driving the move to virtual data centres. 

And even more so now with the COVID-19 pandemic, this shows Africa’s cloud services space is evolving and that business leaders recognise the need to move their workloads to the cloud as on-premises data centres give way to automated or virtual options either on-premises or in the cloud.

This is according to Robert Graham, Technical Team Lead at leading open source technology and services provider Obsidian Systems.

Today, the discussion around cloud and data centre strategy is tailored around automation.

“The question of why would one then want to automate your data centre arises, if it is so easy to deploy a server with the click of a button. It is not like the old days where you physically had to rack-and-stack a server room, lay the network cables and configure network switches and only after a few days or even months you were able to utilise these servers within your physical data centre. For data centre automation, one has to look at ways to enable the developers and operations engineers to easily deploy, configure and maintain an application or service within your data centre whether this is an on-premises or cloud data centre,” Graham adds.

Automation means freeing your human resource to focus on building solutions instead of wasting time on troubleshooting and manually building an environment, says Graham.

“You would want to be able to do this in a trusted and predictable way, utilising tools that will allow you to define your infrastructure as code. With infrastructure as code, you can continuously test your environment before it is deployed or upgraded. Without infrastructure-as-code one stands the risk of creating a snowflake environment - that requires a great number of person-hours to do manual tasks which can lead to human error and fatigue,” he continues.

Graham believes generally, physical data centres are unlikely to disappear soon. However, the idea of a data centre has certainly changed.

“A great number of organisations around the world are moving towards the concept of a virtual data centre. This allows companies to focus more on the product and service they want to deliver than on maintaining an on-premises data centre. A question that does come to mind is whether increased automation in the data centre will result in job losses. One should rather look at this challenge from another angle, and ask ‘how can we utilise the skills of the engineers that spent countless hours in physical data centres in a more productive way? It mostly depends on the willingness of a person to learn new ways of doing things.” 

Graham raises operating systems as an example. “A couple of years ago it required a lot of skill to deploy a server properly, today anyone can deploy a server with a choice of an operating system with little to no skill. Where the skill comes into play is to configure this particular server to perform the task it was deployed for the best way it can. With this knowledge, an engineer should be able to make use of an automation tool that will give them the ability to configure this server as required. With any form of automation, you will always need someone to maintain the automation tool.”

Advantages to automation

Obsidian says that among the main benefits of automation in the data centre are that systems perform the boring repetitive tasks “which in the end will give you predictability and minimise human error”.

This will give your engineers and developers more time to focus on building exciting new systems and services and not waste unnecessary time on getting things to work as on the developer's machine.

“With automation in place especially in the area of infrastructure-as-code, the engineers can be empowered to easily recover or replicate an environment somewhere else, which at the end of the day will save the company money with reduced downtime of their services. Another way to automate the data centre is to build your systems in such a way that they can automatic failover to another site or cloud environment. This will also reduce alert fatigue for your engineers on call,"’ Graham adds.

But Obsidian underlines the main aim of automation should always be to make the engineer’s life easier.

Graham continues: “Saying this, some engineers are not for automation as they feel they are losing control. This dichotomy brings us to the point where one has to decide what is better for the organisation. When we look at the modern data centre and compare them with the ones from a decade or two ago, some of the ‘old’ data centres already had some form of automation by the means of robotic arms swapping backup tapes in and out during the daily backup process. Even this form of automation has become redundant due to today's fast network and Internet capabilities and more affordable storage. This just shows us that automation within the data centre will be an ever-evolving process, and as technology will evolve so will our data centres.”

The best approach to automation

Obsidian says there are a few steps that must be taken to help an organisation begin its automation journey.

First, a business has to identify a few people to form part of the automation team. Then, identify a small component that can be automated to ensure a quick win.

“This will build confidence in the team and the rest of the organisation that automation is an achievable option. This can be anything from automating the deployment of infrastructure for a small project utilising a tool like Terraform by Hashicorp, or deploying one piece of software such as the backup tool to your development environment with a tool like CHEF, Ansible, Puppet or Saltstack,” says Graham.

“It is of utmost importance that the automation team work closely along with the existing infrastructure and development team to identify other tasks and processes that can be automated within your data centre. Slowly but surely more people will start to see the success of automation. From a development point of view look at DevOps tools that will give your team the ability to continuously test and deploy their code. Tools like Gitlab, Jenkins and Bamboo are great for this.”

Automation will keep on improving as technology improves, according to Graham.

He believes the future data centre will strongly rely on automation to continuously improve the service a company delivers, whether this is for an on-premises or cloud-based data centre.

“The important thing is to start your automation journey as soon as possible, for this will allow you to clear out some technical debt,” he adds.


Obsidian Systems

Obsidian Systems, along with its subsidiaries GuruHut, Autumn Leaf, and RadixTrie, is an established supplier of enterprise-ready open source software solutions. We focus on providing the South African market with vendor-certified products; local expertise to provide consulting, development, and support; and vendor-certified training.

We help teams to get their code to the best compute and the correct data.

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