Data Center Automation: A How-To Guide with Real-World Examples
Data center automation is expected to rapidly change the data center industry.
Look at any data center industry publication, website, or event and there will be plenty of content predicting what data center automation is going to look like. Data center professionals are curious on how automation is going to change their jobs and data center management.
The truth is that we already know.
Cutting-edge data center managers are already implementing integration and automation in their data centers, and they are getting incredible results.
"What we're trying to do as an organization is to get out of the data world and into the information world," said Raymond Parpart, Director Data Center Strategy & Operations, The University of Chicago. To achieve this, the university is making Data Center Infrastructure Management (DCIM) software "the center of the universe for the data center."
Our customers are the most innovative and sophisticated data center managers in the world, and this is the story we hear from them every day.
All data center managers strive to save time and money, but the best ones have found the solution and it's catching on quickly.
You don't have to wonder and guess about how data center automation is changing the industry. Here are ten real-world examples on how leading data center professionals are driving automation today. Follow data center automation best practices and you, too, can dramatically simplify data center management.
What is Data Center Automation?
Data center automation is the process in which the routine processes of data center operations are completed without any manual effort.
What are the Benefits of Data Center Automation?
The benefits of data center automation include:
- A single source of truth. Integrating systems breaks down information silos and increases the accuracy of your data.
- Improved workflow and productivity. Information entered in one system is automatically pushed to another, saving you time by not having to update multiple systems or cross-check data.
- Improved collaboration across functional teams. Integration creates one holistic picture of all available data, enabling data-driven collaboration and decision-making across all data center, facilities, and IT teams.
- Increased utilization of existing resource capacity. Automatically provision resources in the most efficient manner possible to maximize the value of your existing footprint and defer capital expenditures.
- Maintain uptime and meet service level agreements. Get automatic notifications of conditions in your data center that may lead to downtime so you can resolve them before they become real problems.
- Eliminate human error. Automate manual data entry and say goodbye to a leading cause of data center outages: human error.
- Focus more on strategic projects. Automating routine, time-consuming tasks frees your team up to spend more time on higher priority projects.
- Simplified data center security management. You can easily maintain user permissions to ensure security policies are adhered to. If some users only need access to some data, they can still see the relevant data they need.
What are the Top Data Center Automation Tools?
The most commonly used tools to drive data center automation via integration include:
- DCIM software. DCIM software is the central component of a complete data center management toolkit. It provides a holistic view of all data center resources and capacity in a single pane of glass to enable real-time capacity and change management to optimize the availability, utilization, and efficiency of the data center. DCIM software is used to track detailed asset information and visuals such as the exact site and rack location with U position, dimensions, weight, power and network connections, and rack elevation visualizations. Second-generation DCIM software will come out of the box with a bidirectional restful web service API and universal CMDB and ticketing connectors to simplify integration.
- APIs. APIs enable different applications to integrate and share data.
- CMDBs. A Configuration Management Database (CMDB) such as ServiceNow stores information on the hardware, software, systems, facilities, and personnel within an organization. It helps IT professionals understand and manage these assets and their relationships in order to more efficiently deliver IT services and make better business decisions.
- Ticketing systems. Ticketing systems such as Jira are used to process and document service requests such as moves, adds, and changes.
- Dev Ops tools. Dev Ops tools such as Ansible, Chef, Jenkins, and Puppet integrate application development and IT operations. They provide organizations with more control over their IT processes and systems. With Dev Ops tools, IT infrastructure can be managed faster and more efficiently to allow for quick development, testing, and deployment of applications and workloads.
Who Benefits from Data Center Automation?
While the entire organization benefits from the increased efficiency and productivity data center automation provides, the job titles we see getting the most value include:
- Data Center Managers
- Data Center Engineers
- Data Center Operators
- DCIM/Tools Managers
- Dev Ops Engineers
- Infrastructure Architects
- Infrastructure Engineers
- Software Engineers
1. Enable a single source of truth
Integrating systems improves data accuracy, saves time, and enhances the data you already have.
For example, you may have a traditional IT CMDB, but that is just a database of fields. When you integrate your CMDB with DCIM software, you get additional detailed asset information and visuals such as the exact site and rack location with U position, dimensions, weight, power and network port connections, and rack elevation visualizations to provide a 3D experience.
Plus, it's incredibly easy to do.
Many organizations use ServiceNow® as their CMDB. A modern DCIM tool will have a certified ServiceNow app that enables bidirectional communications to automatically create, update, and delete items in both systems. The integration can be set up in less than one hour.
"We're going to use the ServiceNow integration so that when our operations team adds the serial numbers and asset tags, it'll automatically populate [in our DCIM]," said Kon Torres, Global Data Center Engineer. "That saves a pretty big step for both our teams."
Watch the two-minute video to see how easy it is.
A second-generation DCIM solution will also have a universal CMDB and ticket connector that integrates with your BMC®, Cherwell®, Jira®, or homegrown asset and ticketing information just as effortlessly.
Integrating your CMDB and ticketing systems with DCIM software enables a single source of truth. With accurate data you can trust, you can better manage all data center resources and make more informed decisions. You will break down information silos, eliminate multiple manual data entries, and facilitate data-driven collaboration across all functional teams.
2. Automate virtual machine management
Most data center managers know that server virtualization reduces hardware costs, enables faster provisioning of resources, and reduces energy costs. Many, however, still struggle to manage their clusters, hosts, and virtual machines.
This work can be automated by integrating your VMware® deployment with DCIM software.
By integrating DCIM software and VMware, you can register for "events" such as new cluster, host, or VM being deployed. That information will then be automatically populated into your DCIM so you can do many useful things like map which physical machines a VM is running on.
You can also integrate DCIM with VMware Cloud, including vSphere on AWS and across hybrid clouds, to gain insight to VMs in public and private clouds as well as in on-premises data centers. For example, you can search by asset name, type, or status using either the DCIM or VMware hierarchy. Or if you are going to take a system down to perform maintenance, you can know exactly which VMs are on that host.
Customers say it only takes "3 or 4 minutes" to set up the integration.
Watch The University of Chicago demonstrate how easy it is (skip to 39 minutes, 5 seconds).
"Not only do you have the logical representation of where [a VM] is, you also have that physical representation," said Abe Shaker, Monitoring and Reporting Engineer, The University of Chicago. "There's no human error involved. It's maintained by itself automatically."
Alternatively, IT organizations like Workday use their own API client to push VM data directly into their DCIM software. They track their VM data with a VMware application, package the data into a CSV file, and push it to Jenkins. There, they have an automation job that processes the file and creates or updates information in their DCIM software.
3. Automate provisioning and orchestration
Workday is a leading example of what can be achieved by automating data center operations. They have leveraged the bidirectional RESTful web service API of their second-generation DCIM software to automate many things including device provisioning and orchestration.
Before they deployed DCIM software, they had a homegrown tool that they had begun integrating with other systems. Right away, they learned that unless they were able to do this in near real-time, they were going to have data integrity issues where their asset tool could report values that weren't accurate until a machine configuration was complete. This had the potential to create issues with operations, compliance, and credibility. To overcome this challenge, Workday created the concept of a "source of becoming," similar to the well-known "source of truth."
They realized they needed a way to track both. The solution was to leverage the custom fields capability of their DCIM software. Instead of using a standalone database to capture these desired values, they capture data for both the desired values and the reported values within their DCIM software. Then, they use those desired values as integration points for their provisioning and orchestration tooling.
"[Automation] will make our provisioning process zero-touch from the point at which a cabinet is installed, cabled, and powered," said Tony Lincoln, Principal Dev Ops Engineer. "All this depends on knowing the state of your assets, where they've been, what they currently look like, and where they're going. Leveraging custom fields let us build a framework to track all that."
Watch Workday explain their provisioning and orchestration automation (skip to 11 minutes, 23 seconds)
4. Automate parts management
Parts Management is a featured of modern DCIM software. It enables you to centrally manage all hard drives, cards, memory modules, cables, and any other component. Even boxes of screws.
This ability is a game-changer for data center managers who are used to managing thousands of individuals parts and spares manually with spreadsheets. Customers like Workday have taken it even farther and completely automated it.
By deploying DCIM software with Parts Management and leveraging the tool's open API and ODBC access, Workday has integrated their DCIM software with Slack, Jira, and other tools to:
- Get daily reports of parts consumed per location
- Alert if the number of parts consumed exceeds a certain threshold
- Alert if a specific part is consumed excessively
- Create deprecation reports for obsolete parts
"Jenkins is a very good tool for automation, and it has a lot of plugins that allow us to provide this functionality," said Moshe Haber, Senior Dev Ops Engineer, Workday. "We have a plugin for Jira, a plugin for Slack, a plugin for Git, and the API. The automation is based on multiple jobs that are processing data and generating the reports or alerts."
Watch Workday explain how they automate parts management (skip to 10 minutes, 55 seconds)
5. Leverage a business rules engine
Business rules are automation programs that a system administrator can create to the benefit of all users. By streamlining operations, they improve productivity, reduce errors, and save money.
With a modern DCIM solution, you can apply business rules to your data center operations with an easy-to-use rules engine.
A rules engine creates automation rules based upon user-configurable conditions. For example, if a field is updated, another field is automatically updated with specific values based on the rule.
Rules can be applied to any assets that qualify based on the rules' built-in logic and parameters. A rule is evaluated and applied whenever an asset that meets the rule's criteria is created or updated.
Example use cases include:
- Update the budgeted watts of power supply 1 and power supply 2 based on an asset's location
- Set an asset's serial number field to be equal to the asset's name
- Provide data port comments based on an asset's location and function type
- Automatically set a planning expiration date for an asset
6. Automate device power budgeting
Data center managers often struggle with the complexity of accurately planning and managing their power capacity. The traditional approach to device power budgeting is to derate the server nameplate value to around 60%. This process is manual, estimated, largely inaccurate, and often results in wasted space and money.
Leading data center professionals are getting enormous return-on-investment by leveraging DCIM software with an Auto Power Budget feature. Auto Power Budget automatically calculates an accurate power budget number for each make and model instance of a device based upon the actual measured load of that device in your environment running your applications. The budget numbers are automatically updated every week. You just set your policy once and the software does the rest.
Auto Power Budget provides you with many opportunities to safely deploy more devices in fewer racks, enabling highly efficient data center operations. Try the free calculator to see exactly how much money you can save with Auto Power Budget.
Comcast uses Auto Power Budget to plan for the most effective and rapid deployments possible by determining, in advance, exactly where assets should be installed, how they should be connected, what downstream devices are impacted, and how much power those assets will consume.
Read the Comcast case study to learn how they are getting 40% more utilization out of their existing resources.
The same feature is used by eBay. They were able to reduce the number of cabinets required for new projects by 33%, saving them $120,000 on just one single project.
7. Automatically receive scheduled charts and reports via email
Insights from data are critical to making the best data center management decisions. However, the massive volume and variety of data being generated by data center devices make it difficult to know what data is important, how to analyze it, and how to extract value from it.
With legacy management tools like Excel® and Visio®, it's time-consuming and often inaccurate.
Second-generation DCIM software automates business intelligence and analytics with dashboard charts, reports, and visual analytics. There's no need to worry about "garbage in, garbage out" because your device, meter, and sensor data is automatically collected, stored, and trended with extreme accuracy.
With a modern DCIM solution, you have access to over 200 charts and reports out of the box without requiring any tedious configuration effort.
It also lets you easily automate data sharing so you can drive a culture a data-driven collaboration.
Simply select the pre-configured or custom charts or reports you want to create and distribute, select the frequency of email delivery, and select who should receive them. Then, the job is done and your team and stakeholders are automatically aware of the latest data center KPIs indefinitely.
"[DCIM software] significantly reduces our effort in creating capacity management reports by automatically creating them and emailing them to my capacity management when required," said Peter Giles, Senior Data Centre Manager, Paddy Power Betfair
8. Automatically be alerted of potential issues
The old-fashioned way of power monitoring and environment monitoring is to go on-site to manually read and record meter and sensor measurements. This wastes time and leaves you vulnerable to issues that may occur when you're not on-site.
With DCIM software, it's easy to set warning and critical thresholds on the live measured readings from power meters and environmental sensors. Then, with automatic alerting upon threshold violations, you will be the first to know of conditions in your data center that may cause downtime or decrease efficiency. This allows you to remediate the issue proactively before there is a serious problem.
Power thresholds can be set on rack loads, inlet loads, circuit breaker loads, and three-phase balance to help ensure you don't exceed capacity restraints a trip a circuit breaker.
Environmental thresholds can be set on temperature and humidity to notify you if a hot spot is forming, you are overcooling equipment, or conditions are outside of your guidelines.
You can also integrate DCIM software with collaboration tools such as Teams or Slack so that these alerts are sent to your entire team. Everyone will have visibilities into what's happening in the data center for improved collaboration and response time.
"A recent issue where this proved invaluable was demonstrated in one of our main offices where an issue overnight resulted in the loss of network connectivity," said Neil Cotmore, Data Center Team Lead, Kingfisher. "It was highlighted on the health status page to our 24x7 ops team. They also were alerted via email, able to act upon it, and the issue was resolved overnight before the start of the working day so there was no downtime to any users turning up on-site the next day."
9. Leverage webhooks
A webhook is a service that allows one application to push data to another when a particular event takes place. Given all the different software tools that are necessary for complete remote management of modern data centers, the value of using webhooks to drive data sharing is enormous.
DCIM software with webhook functionality can automatically push information about moves, adds, and changes to an external system that must know when asset details have changed (e.g., an asset change audit log). Details such as what change was made, who made the change, and when the change was made can be sent immediately via webhook.
Alarms set off by power and environment threshold violations can also be sent by webhooks to Teams, Slack, or other external systems so that all team members and stakeholders are aware of the current conditions in the data center. Potential issues can be proactively investigated and resolved to maximize uptime and efficiency.
10. Automate anything with APIs
With second-generation DCIM software's bidirectional RESTful web service API, you can automate virtually anything that can be done via the GUI. The possibilities are endless.
With APIs, you can create, read, update, and delete all items, ports, locations, lookup lists, requests and work orders, power and data connections, custom fields, and model library items. They provide you the freedom to create your automation.
MacStadium is one company that is saving time and improving productivity with DCIM software and APIs. They are always working to improve their online provisioning experience for customers and want to provide fast fulfillment while meeting or exceeding SLAs.
They have successfully integrated their DCIM software with their billing platform, customer portal, administration system, and accounting systems to automate back-office processing. This has eliminated manual data entry and the possibility of human error.
MacStadium automatically assigns slots and compute devices to be ready on-demand for customers placing an order on their website. Their automation moves devices from a pre-staged account directly to their customers' accounts and updates all their internal systems to reflect the change.
Watch MacStadium describe how they automate back-office processing (skip to 5 minutes, 12 seconds).
"Using the API, we're able to poll our existing racks, see where we have space available, and assign that space automatically to a customer order via our website," said Robert Perkins, Lead Infrastructure Engineer/Architect, MacStadium. "Using the API, our team can utilize the same workflow we had in place before, but we're getting all the benefits of DCIM and being able to view our data centers remotely."
Bringing It All Together
Data center automation is not some vague prediction about the future of data centers. It's already here.
The best data center managers in the world are pioneering exciting new ways to simplify and optimize data center management by automating manual and routine tasks.
At the center of their data center automation strategy is DCIM software.
Don't risk falling behind. Learn from their example and implement their data center automation best practices to drive automation in your data center today.
To learn more, check out our new eBook Top 10 Ways to Drive Data Center Automation.
Want to see how Sunbird's world-leading DCIM software can help you automate data center operations? Try it free now.