The first Industrial Revolution occurred in Great Britain in the late 1700's. Craft industries were displaced altogether by mechanized factories that produced goods of consistently higher quality at lower unit costs.

The IT industry is on the threshold of a similar transformation at the present time. The first industrial revolution in IT occurred in the late 1990's with the widespread implementation of ERP systems.

ERP systems displaced customized applications developed by many corporations to manage departmental tasks and workflows.

ERP systems significantly reduced the staffing required to build and maintain custom applications. The second industrial revolution is currently taking place within IT's infrastructure and operations organizations.

IT automation is an overused and poorly defined term that broadly refers to a combination of job scheduling, run book scripting and configuration management tools that can be used to manage tasks of varying complexity.

Job scheduling tools have been in use for a long time to coordinate the execution of business tasks such as financial account settlement, inventory reconciliation and procurement planning.

Run book scripting has primarily been used to orchestrate IT operational activities such as asset provisioning, server restarting and access control management.

Configuration management tools are typically employed to manage finer-grained tasks such as software patching, network port blocking and software license tracking.

Most IT organizations own multiple tools that provide each type of process orchestration capability referenced above.

Engineers and operators have developed expertise in the use of specific tools and tend to apply them at will, with no overall framework to determine the specific tool that is best suited for a particular task.

Sustainable use
Consequently, it's difficult to achieve significant levels of reuse from specific tool implementations and doubly difficult to achieve a true return on investments in individual tools.

Enlightened organizations are standardizing on specific automation tool sets; training their engineers and operators on the proper use of the selected tools; and establishing best-practice reference models and repositories to foster consistency of implementation and broader reuse of existing solutions.

The goals of IT automation are the same today as they have been in the past, namely a desire to increase labour productivity and reduce the risk of service disruption through inadvertent human error.

However, the forces driving the adoption of automation practices have changed significantly.

As with so many other things in IT, cloud computing is forcing IT infrastructure teams to re-examine their historical operational practices.

To an increasing degree they are competing directly with companies such as Amazon that can deliver access to server and storage capabilities in a matter of minutes.

Most infrastructure teams have very limited ability to increase staffing levels, but they are confronted with significantly increasing responsibilities as:

 - Corporate data warehouses grow exponentially
 - Smartphones and tablet computers are distributed to employees
 - Business threats from firewall intrusions, malware, and inadvertent data loss multiply

In the face of expanding responsibilities and heightened competition, automation is the only sane survival mechanism available.

From a broader perspective, automation expertise will become an increasingly pervasive core competency of all IT organizations as they adopt the new management paradigm of integrating IT capabilities procured from platform, software and infrastructure service vendors.

IT's responsibilities for designing, building and operating business systems will decrease significantly in the future.

In place of these responsibilities, IT will be expected to orchestrate the interaction of tasks or services performed by systems that are hosted, owned and/or operated by others.Spreading the word
Every revolution encounters obstacles, and there are significant obstacles that must be overcome to fully realize the benefits of IT automation.

Technology standardization is a key enabler of automation. IT organizations have intuitively understood the benefits of standardization for a long time.

Unfortunately, they've had a hard time convincing their business clients about those benefits. The business clients themselves are starting to understand the standardization argument.

They are observing the business agility of SaaS vendors who are delivering significant new business functionality to their customers on 4-6 month cycles.

They are also observing the ability of infrastructure providers such as Amazon to provision resources needed for new product development and customer demonstrations in a matter of minutes instead of weeks.

A desire for similar IT agility within the corporate firewall can only be achieved through the development of automated management procedures for standardized stacks of technology.

Every revolution also has consequences, some intended and others not.

The exponential adoption of automation practices that is about to occur within IT will inevitably reduce staffing requirements within infrastructure and operations teams.

Smart CIOs will create automation engineering competency centers within their existing groups and start re-skilling their best and brightest on a standardized set of automation tools, not only to achieve near term operational benefits but also to retain their most valued employees.

It's also interesting to speculate on the potential impact of the automation revolution on the technical theocracies that have existed within IT for so long.

A well known, but little publicized fact is that many IT organizations function in a manner that is quite similar to the craft guilds of the Middle Ages, employing small groups of highly skilled but narrowly focused technicians to manage servers, storage farms, desktop devices and network switches.

The impending automation revolution may be the final and most significant threat to the guild work that persists in many IT shops, forcing technical specialists to pool their knowledge to orchestrate operational processes that crosscut their individual areas of expertise.

Optimizing the management of IT processes instead of IT technology will initially make many guild members uncomfortable, but it will ultimately make IT more efficient and effective.

Great Britain's ability to take advantage of the technical innovations of the late 1700's turned it into an economic powerhouse that was the envy of the nineteenth century world.

IT organizations that pioneer the adoption of automation practices during the next 3-5 years are likely to be similarly envied during the remaining portion of the current decade.

Mark Settle is CIO at BMC Software and a former CIO for Visa International

Pic: DaveOnFlickr cc2.0