Blog Post What is Cloud Automation? Universal Guide

Everything you need to know about automation and orchestration in multi-cloud, hybrid cloud, and hybrid IT environments.

Robi's Universal Guide to Cloud Automation

Automation in the cloud is a big deal in 2023. In fact, cloud automation tops the list of tool investments by enterprises this year. Nearly every organization is using the cloud. As adoption increases, so do the interdependencies between different cloud providers. Automation and orchestration are natural extensions.  

In this Universal Guide, we’ll dive into cloud automation, what it does, and what’s coming next. Additionally, this guide will explore available tools and how to level up your orchestration approach.

What is Cloud Automation?

Cloud automation helps to reduce the complexity of cloud operations by eliminating error-prone manual IT processes across cloud service providers (CSP), SaaS applications, databases in the cloud, and more. 

The growth of cloud adoption raises an important question about what cloud automation has become. Yesterday, it was a mix of tools. Today, it's about a single automation and orchestration platform. This single platform is designed to connect the dots between multi-cloud, hybrid-cloud, and on-premises environments.

Cloud Automation Benefits

A typical enterprise has any number of SaaS-based applications and at least more than one cloud service provider (CSP). Adoption continues to increase. In fact, Gartner predicts that in 2023, worldwide public cloud spend will grow by 20.7%.

Once in the cloud, enterprises quickly realize that removing manual processes is critical to managing a growing set of tools and systems. According to the 2023 Global State of IT Automation Report, 81% of respondents plan to grow their cloud automation software investment over the next twelve months.

Cloud Automation helps by going beyond internal process improvements and cost savings. Its real value is how it can be used to drive new revenue streams.

Leading organizations use automation to enhance customer experiences, deliver demand-based pricing, create new product categories, and more. 

Important Terms to Know in Cloud Automation

Cloud infrastructure refers to the hardware and software components. These components include servers, storage, networking, virtualization software. Their goal is to support the computing requirements of a cloud computing model. Cloud environments can be public, private, or a combination of both, differentiated as:

  • Multi-cloud environment is “the practice of using cloud services from multiple heterogeneous cloud services, as well as specialized platform-as-a-service (PaaS), infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS), or software-as-a-service (SaaS) providers,” per TechRepublic.
  • Hybrid cloud environment takes one or more of the public cloud platforms listed above and combines it with at least one private cloud.
  • Hybrid IT environment combines any cloud (public or private) with on-premises systems (mainframe or server-based).

Cloud orchestration is the practice of organizing multiple automated tasks into a single harmonious workflow, making IT processes simpler and more efficient. 

Cloud meta-orchestration solutions connect to existing automation tools — such as cloud schedulers, open-source schedulers, built-in application schedulers, and even legacy on-prem focused schedulers —  allowing end-users to manage them from a single platform centrally.

Real-Time is Critical for the Cloud

IT processes must be automated in real-time to achieve the vision for cloud investments. This is where not all cloud automation tools are created equal. Real-time cloud automation is accomplished using event-based triggers.

  • Event-based means that automated processes are triggered at the point of a system event. In contrast, less sophisticated schedulers are time-based or trigger jobs at a specific time interval.
  • IT tasks run immediately, triggered by system events. This approach eliminates the need for nightly batch updates. It's important to note that event-based triggers are key to enterprises that require up-to-the-minute data flows.

Recommendation: When looking for a solution, identify whether it runs based on system events, time intervals, or both. But in today’s fast-paced world, try to avoid time-based only tools.

Who is Responsible for Automation? 

IT Ops is often responsible for maintaining the integrity of automated solutions. Before the cloud, IT Ops would have maintained automation across mainframes and distributed servers located on-premises. IT Ops continues to be heavily involved in the shift to the cloud. However, a new set of end-users have joined the decision-making process, including:

  • Cloud architects and cloud engineers: Responsible for cloud management, architects and engineers are building processes, selecting tools, and creating infrastructure in the cloud. Stand-alone cloud operations teams are growing in prevalence. That said, it’s still common for cloud teams to be embedded in IT Ops or DevOps.
  • DevOps teams: Developers use tools in the cloud to build applications. Plus, they need to automate the CI/CD toolchain between cloud and on-premises applications.
  • Platform operations: As an emerging role within the IT team, platform operations teams focus on putting standard tools and infrastructure in place for their business.
  • Data teams and DataOps professionals: Data architects and engineers have been among the first groups to shift to the cloud. Data pipelines typically run through cloud databases or cloud-based ETL and analytics tools. Like DevOps, data teams must rely on connecting on-premises and cloud automation.

Line of business end-users, including marketing, sales, and finance, have all become more interested in cloud automation. They have cloud-based tools, including ERP, CRM, and marketing tools. Line of business users will be consumers of automation as a service, which the IT Ops team will often provide.

Cloud Automation Tools and Platforms

There are various types of IT automation solutions on the market. Many enterprises rely on application-specific job schedulers or CSP cloud schedulers in the early days of their cloud transition. Starting with low-cost, easy-to-implement schedulers make sense during a proof-of-concept stage. As your automation program evolves, so should your platforms. 

Cloud automation solutions - schedulers:

  • Job Schedulers: Most applications will have a built-in or native job scheduler. These application-specific job schedulers are limited to performing automation within their tool. Typically, job schedulers are regulated to batch or time-based automation.
  • Cloud Native Schedulers: To run cloud-native services, CSPs offer their own native cloud schedulers. Examples include AWS Lambda or Azure Logic Apps. While cloud schedulers will automate the services within their own ecosystem, they will not work outside their CSP environments. In other words, Azure Logic Apps only works with Azure services. 
  • Open-source schedulers: Often adopted by data teams, tools like Airflow are easily accessible and have a low barrier to entry. While they are solid schedulers, they have key limitations.  They’re often limited to batch- or time-based automation. They also require higher-paid developers to build and maintain. Being open-source also means a lot of customization and a lack of enterprise features. 
  • Workload Automation (WLA): Some traditional WLA platforms have limited reach into the cloud. They can connect to standard cloud tools, including some AWS and Azure services. That said, traditional on-premises WLA platforms are legacy tools. Built decades ago, connecting to tools outside mainframes or distributed server environments is challenging.  
  • Service Orchestration and Automation Platforms (SOAP): A software category born from traditional on-premises WLA. SOAPs are how enterprises achieve orchestration. Like WLA, SOAPs work on-premises, but the key difference is that SOAPs extend to the cloud with ease. We will cover SOAP in more detail later in this article. 

Additional point solutions that automate specific cloud functions include:

  • Cloud infrastructure management (Terraform, Puppet)
  • Cloud configuration management (Chef, Ansible)
  • Container Automation Platform (Redhat Openshift)
  • Security Compliance (SaltStack)

Point solutions are excellent examples of cloud tools with built-in job schedulers. They automate certain cloud functions. Then, they often have an inbuilt scheduler that allows them to schedule jobs at specific times.

Beyond Cloud Automation with Cloud Orchestration

Once organizations get automation working across their cloud environment, the next step is to break down automation silos. At this point, IT teams are focused on orchestrating automated processes between different cloud solutions with a broader management tool. Some of the primary drivers of this change are:

  • Gain centralized orchestration: Disparate cloud solutions in a multi-cloud environment will work best when connected. Orchestration empowers IT Ops and Cloud Ops teams to manage automation activity from a single platform.
    • Fun fact: This is the point where cloud automation begins to transition into cloud orchestration.
  • Build workflows between cloud providers: Workflows connect automated tasks, or jobs, across a private, public cloud, and multi-cloud environment. Workflows are designed to orchestrate workloads within as well as between systems.
    • Fun Fact: In modern platforms, workflow creation will be completed using a visual drag-and-drop workflow designer.
  • Empower end-users with self-service IT automation: Enabling employees to run automation without the help of IT support is the goal. According to the 2023 Global State of IT Automation report, 92% of respondents offer self-service automation to their organization, up from 84% in 2022. An example of self-service is enabling an employee to provision cloud infrastructure from their own native applications.

Complete Cloud Automation and Cloud Orchestration Platform: 

As discussed, there are several point solutions available. However, none of the point solutions are capable of orchestration. Service orchestration and automation platforms (SOAPs) offer a more comprehensive approach to meta-orchestrate cloud automation workflows across various tools, applications, or systems

Gartner recommends using SOAPs to manage cloud automation centrally. SOAPs integrate with cloud tools using APIs, allowing you to orchestrate from a single lens. Gartner predicts that 80% of organizations using traditional WLA tools will switch to SOAPs to orchestrate cloud-based workloads by 2025.

Once connected, a SOAP is your enterprise's primary control center to automate cloud tools directly. Additionally, SOAPs will connect to job and cloud schedulers, allowing end-users to manage their automation processes from the SOAP. In essence, SOAPs are designed as the glue that bonds the IT landscape.

What are the benefits of cloud automation with a SOAP?

  • Centrally manage all automation in any cloud application or platform
  • Manage cloud installations
  • Automate the transfer of data between cloud providers
  • Manage cloud computing resources
  • Provision and de-provision cloud infrastructure
  • Re-direct overflow traffic with cloud bursting
  • Empower cross-team collaboration with self-service automation
  • Apply event triggers to automate in real-time
  • Schedule and automate jobs within containers
  • And much more

Use Cases for Cloud Automation and Orchestration

Cloud automation can certainly do everything a traditional on-premises job scheduler can do. But it doesn’t stop there. Cloud automation also maximizes the inherent benefits of cloud resources. Keep reading for use cases every IT pro should know, plus real-world cloud automation uses cases and examples.

Multi-Cloud Orchestration

Centrally automates and schedules workloads across leading public cloud providers like AWS, GCP, and Azure, as well as SaaS tools, cloud storage, infrastructure management, cloud-native database tools, and a whole lot more. 

  • Real-world example: Denmark’s largest grocer, Coop, uses orchestrated workloads across its mainframe and the many distributed, open systems that comprise its complex hybrid IT infrastructure. Stonebranch UAC offers observability while seamlessly integrating across platforms like SAP, Azure, Teradata, Linux, and Windows.

Multi-Cloud and Hybrid-Cloud Data Transfer

Multi-cloud data transfer allows you to move data to, from, and between major private and public cloud providers. Hybrid-cloud data transfer goes a step further to connect on-premises and cloud environments in the same way — in real-time and without intermediate storage.

Cloud Infrastructure Automation

Various point solutions are used in tandem to provision, configure, and deploy cloud infrastructure. The solutions are typically disconnected from an automation standpoint. With an orchestration solution, end users can centrally control workflows across these point solutions. Enterprises gain massive efficiencies in time and effort. 

  • Real-world examples: Learn how Stonebranch orchestrates AWS, Ansible, and Terraform to deploy Stonebranch UAC using infrastructure as code

Simplify Cloud Migrations

To make the most of the cloud, organizations must solve how to manage a growing ecosystem that now includes their on-premises legacy systems alongside new cloud services. Centralizing automation across a hybrid IT environment is popular amongst enterprises focused on shifting to a cloud-first approach.  

Typically, enterprises will run data center infrastructure alongside cloud infrastructure with the same automation platform. With a hybrid automator in place, they can move on-premises infrastructure and applications to the cloud without the need for additional tooling. 

  • Real-world examples: Just about any enterprise-level company in the cloud has taken this approach. This on-demand webcast from Achmea and HCA Healthcare demonstrates how they approached their journey. 

Containers / Microservices Automation

Using container technology requires the deployment and then connectivity to other systems. Automatically deploy containers, and automate applications inside containers. Additionally, it's also possible to move data to and from on-premises data centers and cloud containers.

  • Real-world examples: Multinational insurance company AXA deploys a combination of Stonebranch UAC, Kubernetes, and Red Hat OpenShift. The end result connects applications running on their IBM mainframe to applications running in AWS, Azure, and Google Cloud Platform (GCP) services.

Mainframe Modernization

There are several reasons that companies continue to use the mainframe. However, when a cloud-first strategy is implemented, it's time to re-platform, refactor, or rearchitect applications in the cloud.

As an example, AWS offers its AWS Mainframe Modernization service. Other major cloud vendors, like Microsoft Azure, are heading down the same path. This type of approach combines both cloud services with third-party providers to move mainframe applications to the cloud. When making this change, there is typically a period of transition. As a result, enterprises look to automate both the mainframe and the cloud together

  • Real-world example: During its mainframe modernization project, a leading European bank replaced its mainframe scheduling tool to drive mainframe decommissioning. Additionally, the bank was focused on integrating automation across other platforms and applications in its new distributed network setup.

What’s Next in Cloud Automation: Trends and Strategies

Managing cloud resources is essential. Workloads in the cloud are becoming more complex. All that said, below are some industry reports that will help navigate the overall market and cloud automation platforms. 

  • 2023 State of IT Automation Report - Multi-cloud, hybrid-cloud, and hybrid IT environments are here to stay. Yet they offer up complexities that are hard to manage without a strategy and tools to help mitigate risk. See the latest trends and benchmark data from the 2023 State of IT Automation research. 
  • SAPinsider Benchmark Report: Analytics in the Cloud - This benchmark report explores how organizations evolve their cloud-based data and analytics portfolios to meet customer expectations.
  • Gartner 2022 Market Guide for Service Orchestration and Automation Platforms (SOAP) - This is a must-read market guide for anybody in IT Ops, DevOps or DataOps 

Additional Cloud Automation Resources

Cloud automation enables everything from cross-team collaboration to infrastructure-as-code. Learn about how SOAPs, like Stonebranch Universal Automation Center (UAC), enable meta-orchestration of your entire cloud environment.

Final Thoughts

Integrating and orchestrating automated workflows across a cloud ecosystem is important, but it also adds true measurable value. This value goes beyond internal process improvements. Cloud automation’s real impact lies in how you use it to drive new revenue sources.

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