These days I’m finding more customers interested in orchestration; which according to Wikipedia “describes the automated arrangement, coordination and management of complex computer systems, middleware and services.”

Two questions I’m often asked are:

”What is the difference between automation and orchestration?”

”How would I make sense of orchestrating my IT offerings?“

For the first question, think of automation as the configuration, adjustment or inventory of individual properties of a device or feature. You could enable compression on storage, enable a switch port or make some other minute adjustment. These are the tips of an iceberg of tasks you can automate.

I like to think of orchestration as effectively combining a collection of automated tasks and processes to create intelligent workflow.

For the latter question, figuring out how to leverage orchestration for your organization is where it gets both interesting and fun.

Prepare for Orchestration

You most likely have some “under the covers” automation. But more importantly you have lots of customization. You will have to come to terms with the both of those. Do your engineers script? Are you aggressive with your environments? Do you run as many vendor features as you can? Do you take a more standardized approach or is each application deployed using lots of individual tweaks?

In the world of orchestration, individual customizations running with too many features increase the risk of failure. The sooner you recognize the costs and benefits of your current environment, the more realistic your orchestration efforts will be.

You want to get to a stable, scalable and repeatable environment. Customizations beyond standardized IT should be tied to ROI. If you do not have a base assessment of your current IT footing, I would argue you need to spend the time and begin preparations now.

Commit or Face Failure

Implementing an orchestration tool will not succeed unless you are committed. Neither IT environments nor orchestration environments, for that matter, will stand still. Process changes, software updates, changes in capabilities, your company culture and updates to existing chained workflows all affect ongoing orchestration.

Orchestration is not an anti-virus that you can install and forget about. The IT staff that manages your storage, network, operating systems, applications and virtualization platforms will all need to be plugged in and stay plugged into automation efforts. Orchestration works with elements of your environment and while it makes things moves quicker, it is absolutely glued to the hip of that infrastructure. Your tools and orchestration programming will need to change as your infrastructure changes. Remember, versioning matters.

Does this sound complex yet? Perhaps, but should IT chiefs be frightened by the process? Absolutely not. Orchestration helps provide agility and shakes out the gremlins of any system you automate. Preparation and planning will help make your transition much smoother, so long as your expectations align with realities on the ground.

Survey Your Staff

Do you have a passionate organization? I highly recommend that any company that is seriously considering orchestration initiatives to survey a subset of its staff. You can learn a lot from your staff at many levels. Your staff will often have great ideas for improvements. But more importantly, they help you uncover narratives that matter. Get lots of input in your exploratory stages.

My recommendation is sending the same sets of survey questions to senior managers and staff. It makes sense for those who touch either IT systems or interact with IT services to provide feedback on their view of IT.

Once you have survey responses in hand, you may find a ton of great feedback in terms of ideas around automation, process or other changes to make your organization more agile. All three will affect orchestration efforts and the sooner you identify issues, the sooner you can plan. As an added benefit, you might find feedback that helps make you more agile with nothing more than changing processes and not even purchasing software.

The Time to Start Thinking about Orchestration is Now

The orchestration market is in its early stages. There is no one perfect product. Ultimately any efforts you put into making your environment more uniform, scalable and better documented will help immensely during further stages of exploring or running orchestration initiatives.

You will find that just getting a current review of the state of your IT infrastructure will be both enlightening and liberating. Do you have legacy systems that could be better automated? Do you have some systems that could be written for platform as a service (PaaS)? Do you have infrastructure that could be more uniformly controlled? Are there internal processes that could be updated with software? These are all questions you can begin to delve into as you plan for your future.

Your success will hinge on planning, realistic expectations, commitment and adaptability. This is just the beginning but it should get you excited for a future of faster response, lower costs and better visibilitiy.