Startups Seize Automation Market

So you’re a CIO of a large trading firm. Your head IT administrator comes to you and tells you that he doesn’t have the staff to manage alerts, security warnings and patches.

Trading firms and telecommunications companies process millions of transactions on computing systems that execute thousands of different tasks. And when problems arise, or when it’s simply time for routine system maintenance, it can present a huge drain on IT resources because they eat up IT staffers’ time.

Who can keep up? And more importantly, how? You, the CIO, can. With run-book automation.

Turning the pain into gain

Gartner coined the term “run-book automation,” which is slang for what other research firms call IT management process automation. That is, software that automates processes and applies the correct resources to changes that arise in computer systems.

Run-book automation can trigger a configuration management database (CMDB), a software tool many companies are adding to store configuration data and gauge real-time views of changes, the risks and impacts of planned changes, and how those changes will affect other resources on a network.

In practical terms, a CMDB will let an administrator see a change to a database in near real time, understand the possible outcomes and note how that change affected an application, for example. The admin could effect a change accordingly.

Theoretically, run-book automation will take a lot of the redundant, manual work out of the equation for the admins, allowing them to focus on other tasks to help the business efficiently run.

Gartner analyst David Williams said run-book automation had almost no traction when he started tracking it in February. But it’s gaining steam with the emergence of new software products to trigger and corral IT processes.

Williams said run-book automation was brought to the market to address and gain greater control and accountability on who’s doing what, when, how — essentially to make sense of the murkiness of IT management point products that can proliferate in support of an IT operations management process on a computer network.

This includes anything from getting a help desk to talk to event systems or getting information from performance systems that may indicate additional changes to a server configuration. These are basic things that require machines to communicate with multiple tools and potentially across networks.

“Run-book automation tools orchestrate the automation of IT operations management processes, unifying the communication of the underlying, supporting, IT management tools in support of the process. By looking at the process that you’re managing and providing visibility and reporting on that process so you’ve got better IT operations efficiency,” Williams said.

The Players

Williams divides run-book automation players into two camps: generic process and specific process providers. Generic providers, such as startups RealOps, Opalis and iConclude, aim to automate pretty much anything in a computer system.

Specific run-book automation providers include LanDesk, Enigmatic, BladeLogic and Opsware, all using run-book automation for a singular task. For example, BladeLogic and Opsware offer IT orchestration for server provisioning. However, they don’t rely on their own technology.

BladeLogic licenses RealOps’ Automation Management Platform as part of its Orchestration Manager to automate incident, problem, change and configuration management; Opsware uses iConclude’s OpsForce platform in its Orchestrator for the same tasks.

Together, the startups in the space offer hundreds of pre-configured templates for automating IT process management right out of the box.

RealOps CEO Sean McDermott, Opalis CEO Todd DeLaughter (recently a key member of HP’s software unit) and iConclude CEO Sunny Gupta all say they are marketing similar things, but that they have better technology and more process-specific templates and cater to the biggest Fortune 200 or Fortune 500 companies.

In truth, they more or less have the same message: that the pain points associated with automating IT process management are many and excruciating at a time when CIOs handicap budgets.

Next page: What the players are saying

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What run-book leaders are saying

IConclude’s Gupta said customers appreciate having products such as BMC’s Remedy service desk management software, but bemoan the fact that, even with Remedy, a lot of processes must still be manually addressed.

Some financial institutions may have 500,000 to 1 million alerts or incidents flooding their management consoles per day. This sort of triage diagnostics requires manual remediation, which Gupta said is extremely expensive and time consuming.

“This still presents a big problem because with so many coming in you can have a critical alert and miss it, resulting in serious downtime impact on the business,” Gupta said. “Our customers said, ‘Boy if that process could be automated it would have huge value which we would pay money for.'”

Microsoft and Alaskan Airlines are two of about 50 iConclude customers it sells some of its 1,000 or so OpsForce run-book automation process templates to. iConclude is bent on adding several more.

“The signs of the market developing are incredible because every time you sit down with a customer and ask them about manual procedures, the ROI [return-on-investment] is pretty clear,” Gupta said.

Speaking of customers, RealOps skipper McDermott outlined a specific customer scenario involving a large, West Coast-based Internet company that he wouldn’t name.

The company had thousands of servers inundated with alarms, all with different requirements for how to handle them, from disk-utilization instructions to logging issues. The company kept a large staff to triage the alarms and diagnose them.

RealOps brought its AMP software in and applied pre-built applications to automate 20 percent of the company’s alarm stream within four days.

“It’s a huge efficiency grabber. What it allowed them to do was be able to step out of firefighting mode and start looking at innovative ways to do more for the company,” McDermott said.

Consolidation is the consensus

With all the talk about how important run-book automation is in the management software spectrum, some might wonder what the “Big Four” management software vendors — IBM, HP, CA and BMC — are doing in this space.

The CEOs said the Big Four are actively “educating” themselves about the space. Being coy and cagey is the name of their game; they won’t specify how the giants are taking their schooling.

Gartner’s Williams recognizes some inherent challenges for the Big Four in run-book automation, including the stubborn unwillingness to stop putting their proprietary technologies first and adopt a “process-centric” approach that will demand they support and fully integrate with IT management tools outside their portfolios.

This requires them to be technology agnostic. But there’s a small problem: IBM , HP , CA and BMC haven’t built their software portfolios to work with each other.

“Process management cannot work unless you understand the end user’s IT operations and what they’re using today,” Williams explained.

“If IBM can’t fully integrate workflow with HP management products on a network or IT application management products from CA then IBM may not be able to fully support management of a process that spans these areas. None of those vendors have process management with other vendors in mind. Processes are dictating the technology that gets used and, in theory, vendors shouldn’t dictate process.”

This opens the door to possible strategic alliances (see BladeLogic-RealOps and Opsware-iConclude), so the big guys can learn more about the space from the little guys. Such relationships often cultivate due diligence, as big vendors get comfortable with the smaller vendors’ products.

Clearly, vendors who want to leap into the space would have to buy one of the startups to get to market faster; RealOps, Opalis and iConclude all have battle-tested products and legitimate customers.

“We believe consolidation is pretty likely given what happens in IT,” Gupta said.

While the big guys can, as Williams said, “make a bus fly,” with all of their cash and talent, the small guys are making “more headway than they should being the size they are.”

This is all the more reason for the big guys to come calling with cash in hand. When the big guys come on board, Gartner and other research firms will be better able to calculate the net worth of this multi-million-dollar market.

But to date, the big guys have yet to really dip a toe in this space, leaving it for the startups.

Ironically, the biggest challenge in the market may be convincing potential customers that they need this technology to make their IT process management a less painful experience.

Williams said that while the niche is driven by the quest for IT operations efficiencies, it’s a “very difficult thing to justify for a budget because the assumption is that everything you’re doing is to make IT operations more efficient.”

According to McDermott, it’s an interesting challenge because IT processes are dependent on technology and people. “Without looking at the holistic problem, you’re not going to be very successful.”

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