8 automation trends to watch in 2021
Blog: The Enterprise Project - Enterprise Technology
Automation tends to be discussed in tandem with efficiency. To automate something is commonly said to make that thing more efficient, whether that means people and how they do their jobs, processes and their outcomes, or an overall business and its day-to-day operations.
Automation should also be commonly associated with another term: Simplicity. As in, simplifying people’s jobs, how processes produce intended outcomes, and how a business runs.
In the context of IT, this increasingly means simplifying increasingly complex systems and environments. Think of running containers at scale, managing hybrid cloud and multi-cloud infrastructure, and navigating a cloud-native landscape that seems to expand by the day. Automation is critical to keeping things as simple as possible when our environments – both internal and the world at large – are as inherently complex as ever.
That led the themes when we checked in with a variety of IT leaders and practitioners to share the automation trends they’re keeping tabs on as we approach 2021. Almost across the board, the major trends in IT automation can be boiled down to simplifying how people, processes, and tools work.
“2021 will usher in automation that is focused on making the internal customer’s job easier and less complex, especially with the [ongoing challenges] of the pandemic,” says Ravi Lachhman, evangelist at Harness.
[ How can automation free up more staff time for innovation? Get the free eBook: Managing IT with Automation. ]
What’s next in automation
As highly specialized cloud-native operational expertise marches towards automation, Lachhman adds, IT leaders also gain some talent flexibility when people need to switch in and out of teams.
Let’s dig into this and other automation insights to monitor in 2021.
1. Automation used in new ways post-COVID
“2020 has brought in constraints in human-to-human interaction due to unforeseen health concerns, which has rocked the foundations of human interaction prior to COVID-19,” says E.G. Nadhan, chief architect and strategist, North America, Red Hat. “Contactless and touchless mechanisms of consumer and employee interaction will therefore gain more adoption in 2021. This trend extends the application of automation technologies to the areas requiring human-to-human contact which can refine the overall customer experience.
“It also serves as a catalyst expediting the automation of repetitive and routine tasks within and across the extended network of enterprises,” Nadhan notes. “Automation is meant for times like these.”
2. A big push to reduce complexity
2020 has been a challenging year for many individuals and organizations, to put it mildly. And that’s absolutely going to fuel automation and architecture strategies in the year ahead, Lachhman says. He thinks there will be a major push to leverage automation to remove complexity wherever possible, in part to address the realities of remote work and a great deal of ongoing uncertainty, and also because IT is fundamentally more complex than ever.
“With the big push into cloud-native and Kubernetes, it would not be uncommon for large organizations to have millions of lines of YAML in their enterprise,” Lachhman says. “As the cloud-native ecosystem exploded, so did the amount of choice and not far behind was complexity. The computer science adage is true: We are always just moving complexity around.”
[ Kubernetes terminology, demystified: Get our Kubernetes glossary cheat sheet for IT and business leaders. ]
Lachhman predicts that 2021 will be about reducing complexity rather than simply moving it from one stack to another, taking a page from the Site Reliability Engineering (SRE) playbook and favoring simplicity, repeatability, and automation in lieu of living on the “bleeding edge” simply for the sake of it. There are no points for enduring unnecessary pain.
Red Hat chief architect Emily Brand also sees more enterprises emphasizing the principles of SRE. “More enterprises are focused on SRE as a way to reduce toil through smart, targeted automation,” Brand says. “Choosing to invest in high-value automation with the least complexity will be the focus for most infrastructure and ops teams in 2021. Automating yesterday’s problems was yesterday’s problem. Automating tomorrow’s growth is today’s future.”
Lachhman specifically sees CI/CD pipelines as one key area of focus here. In particular, more teams will focus on how they are deploying (leveraging automation wherever possible) rather than what they are deploying.
“Complexity can come in many forms, but de-risking how changes are deployed is a big part of the complexity equation,” Lachhman says. “A big part of the learning curve when leveraging new technology is the operational complexity: how to deploy, how to patch, how to roll back when there is an issue, and how to validate and observe.”
Lachhman has been on several dev teams in his career, and his Java/JEE skills moved seamlessly with him wherever he went. But in every place he encountered a snowflake deployment pattern, often requiring the arcane knowledge of a handful of key team members to operate, especially when things didn’t go well. CI/CD pipelines are adapting to change that paradigm and bring more standardization to the nuts of bolts of deployments.
“CI/CD platforms are becoming more agnostic on what they are deploying and favoring how they are deploying,” Lachhman says. “If leveraging several disparate technologies, they can be deployed by an agnostic platform and the complex operational tasks such as rolling back or a canary deployment would be automated by a pattern. This is highly beneficial because I can tackle the iteration changes needed with more confidence if a problem were to arise.”
3. Not just more automation but more orchestration
“2021 is the year of orchestration of cross-domain automated workflows – to fill in one of the remaining gaps of a fully digitally transformed organization,” says Michael Cardy, Red Hat’s chief technology strategist and director, solution architecture, Canada. Orchestration is the automated configuration, management, and coordination of computer systems, applications, and services, he notes.
Orchestration, and orchestration tools like Kubernetes and enterprise Kubernetes platforms such as Open Shift, help IT to more easily manage complex tasks and workflows.
[ Read also: 3 reasons to use an enterprise Kubernetes platform. ]
“Automation and orchestration are different but related concepts,” Cardy adds. “Automation helps make your business more efficient by reducing or replacing human interaction with IT systems and instead using software to perform tasks in order to reduce cost, complexity, and errors.
“Orchestration works at a higher level and is expected to make decisions based on changing conditions and requirements.”
4. More maturation of tools around Kubernetes
Kubernetes is itself fundamentally an automation technology. As it matures and adoption continues growing, expect to see more automation built around Kubernetes and how teams use it.
“2021 will see more automation around Kubernetes, specifically around the deployment process,” says Eran Bibi, director of DevOps and cloud platform at Aqua Security. “These tools will ensure the application definitions, configurations, and environments will be declarative and version-controlled. And they will take care of the deployment and lifecycle management in an automated manner.”
[ Get straightforward definitions of Kubernetes that you can use with others: Read How to explain Kubernetes in plain English. ]
A big driver for this trend will be to simplify Kubernetes for developers and DevOps teams, especially those that are new to the platform (which is to say, most of them). Developers in particular are ideally focused on products and quality rather than learning the intricacies of Kubernetes deployments and operations. Automating more of the work required of the latter will keep devs focused on what they do best.
“What we’ll see in response to this is more automation around the creation and deployment of Kubernetes objects (there are now around 50 of them), configuration files, and application deployment itself,” says Bruno Andrade, CEO at Shipa. “The trend line is really moving towards automation that can enable developers and DevOps teams to leverage Kubernetes without any Kubernetes expertise.”
Let’s examine four more important automation trends:
5. CI/CD tools will work better with Kubernetes
Perhaps you’re picking up on a theme at this point: There will be plenty of continued attention paid to CI/CD pipelines and Kubernetes as focal points for IT automation the year ahead. And there will be a renewed focus on how those two pieces of modern IT work together, too.
“One important automation trend is the evolution of CI/CD systems to be a better fit with Kubernetes,” says Gordon Haff, technology evangelist at Red Hat. Haff notes that some of the incumbent tools don’t necessarily play nice with the orchestration platform, or otherwise create complexity rather than reduce it.
Haff points to Tekton and Argo CD as two projects in this space likely to gain steam in 2021. These are both examples of specific tools that will help usher in greater automation around (as noted above) Kubernetes deployments.
“Tekton is an open source project that provides a framework to create cloud-native CI/CD pipelines quickly,” Haff says, noting that Tekton was originally part of the Knative project before it was spun out on its own. “As a Kubernetes-native framework, Tekton makes it easier to deploy across multiple cloud providers or hybrid environments.”
“Argo CD is a declarative GitOps operator and uses Git as a source of truth for declarative infrastructure and applications,” Haff says. “It automates the deployment of desired application states in specified target environments.”
Expect to hear more about these tools and others like them.
6. More Kubernetes-managed workloads than in the past
Speaking of Operators, Lachhman from Harness sees a more concerted effort to erase – again, leveraging automation technologies – the red line that once existed between workloads that were considered good fits for containers and Kubernetes and those that were considered nonstarters, such as stateful applications.
“Workloads that require state, persistence, clustering, consensus, and/or order-of-operations were bad fits for Kubernetes in years gone by,” Lachhman says. “The Kubernetes ecosystem has been catching up with a lot of velocity. With the introduction of Operators, the furthering of the Container Storage Interface, and the hard work of the CNCF Storage SIG, the infrastructure is catching up. Vendors and projects are also more accustomed to the nuances of state in Kubernetes.”
Underlying this shift is an increasing amount of automation for things like infrastructure and resource provisioning. Again, this boils down to automation simplifying things that would once have been overly difficult if not impossible.
“Workloads that were bad fits five years ago are looking more appealing to being deployed on cloud-native infrastructure [and] Kubernetes,” Lachhman says. “Bridging the gap that folks who typically deploy outside of Kubernetes are accustomed to and readying them for a new paradigm will move quickly in 2021.”
[ Want to learn more? Get the free eBooks: Getting Started with Kubernetes and O’Reilly: Kubernetes Operators: Automating the Container Orchestration Platform. ]
7. Plenty of painful automation lessons learned
The pandemic became a catalyst for many automation efforts in 2020, not just in IT but across business processes and operations. For some organizations, that’s a great thing. For others, it may have seeded some difficult lessons to be learned in 2021.
“Business leaders turned to automation this year as a way to supplement and enhance digital transformation efforts significantly accelerated by the global pandemic,” says Alex Day, SVP of Americas, at Signavio. “Technological advances projected to take years instead took weeks, as companies and organizations looked to automate in search of greater efficiency at scale.”
That will bring significant impacts in the year ahead – good, bad, and possibly ugly. We’ve noted previously that most forms of automation – such as RPA, for example – don’t actually improve processes on their own. They just help them run faster and more frequently. That’s not a good thing if the underlying process is broken. We’ll see an automation gap in 2021 between organizations that understood that before embarking on a large-scale automation project and those that will find out the hard way.
“In 2021, we will see a clear delineation between those who have automated effectively versus those who have not, dictated by how well a company understands the underlying processes it is automating,” Day says. “Automating broken processes is often far more detrimental compared to not automating at all.”
Day expects the use of related methodologies and technologies such as process mining to grow considerably in 2021 as more organizations realize that they don’t have nearly as strong of a grasp on how their businesses actually operate as they thought.
“I expect us to see process mining, modeling, and simulation experience massive adoption prior to an automation project, which should help pave the way for better process implementation and a more autonomous enterprise,” Day says. “This will help organizations achieve the operational excellence they seek through more effective automation.”
Laserfiche president Karl Chan expects a similar split to open up between organizations that take a strict “do-it-yourself” approach to automation and cloud infrastructure and those who enlist help from thoughtfully chosen vendors. If you’re Uber or Netflix, sure, you’ve got the resources necessary to succeed with an all-in DIY strategy. Most organizations will benefit from outside help, however.
“Over the past year, we’ve seen COVID-19 act as the ‘stick’ for companies that have begun digital transformation efforts, and in particular, the transition to the cloud,” Chan says. “In 2021, we’ll start to see organizations sort themselves into one of two categories: the ones attempting to build their own cloud-like infrastructure and those that will look to third-party providers to help them build out IT automation efforts.”
8. Robotic Process Automation (RPA) use expands
We’ll be covering specific RPA trends in an upcoming story. Suffice it to say for now that the buzz around this particular form of automation – the use of software bots to automatically run certain rule-driven, computer-based tasks – won’t be quieting down in the year ahead.
While containers, CI/CD tools, and Kubernetes might dominate the automation conversation inside of IT, RPA and other forms of process automation will continue to generate interest across business departments. Moreover, expect RPA to be joined by overlapping or complementary technologies (such as process mining, as Day mentioned above) that enhance RPA’s basic capabilities in some way.
[ Learn more about hybrid and multi-cloud workload strategy: Get the free eBook, Multi-Cloud Portability for Dummies. ]