Automation Frameworks & Threshold for Creation


IntroductionYears ago I was walking through an office and saw an administrator logging onto a system, checking the C drive, updating a spreadsheet, logged off and then repeated this task. In pure disbelief, I stood and watched for a minute then asked, "What are you doing?", as I feared the response was "One of the monthly maintenance tasks, checking C drive space".  I calmly asked him to please stop and went back to my desk to write a script.

As administrators and consultants we constantly have to evaluate when do you automate and when do you just do the task.  There are many variables, time to automate, level of production access or change required (and security's opinion about this), how long it takes now, who's paying, how long will you have to keep doing it and what else you have to do.

Automation Frameworks While there are tasks we can automate and this programmer takes it to a new level of task automation including scripts for emailing his wife and making coffee (if I may quote Wayne and Garth, "we're not worthy, we're not worthy"), there is another side, automation frameworks for multiple scenarios and reuse.   The PowerShell Deployment Toolkit was an amazing framework for deploying System Center.  It took the task of deployment from days and weeks of installations and months of fixing deployments to a few minutes, hours and days and still flex to a variety of deployment patterns.

However, there was a learning curve, a list of prerequisites (some documented and some not), a few tricks and digging around custom code you sometimes had to reverse engineer.   This PowerShell framework could have deployed anything, you just had to write your own XML manifest for what you wanted to deploy but that would take a lot of time learning the XML syntax that the deployment framework understood, testing the deployment, working through 'undocumented features' and so on. I actually extended the existing scripts for our own needs, but now a total of one person knows what those extra XML properties mean.

New Thresholds Cloud technologies like Azure are changing at a pace unseen in the enterprise space. VMs or IaaS compute has shifted through Classic, ARM deployments, versions V1 and V2, not to mention API versions.  Extensions keep being added and DSC brings another layer to the table.  These layers are all shifting with and without each other.  Recently I had the property of the VM.OSProfile change on me from virtualharddisks to VHDs which broke a script.

When we consider developing frameworks like PDT in the cloud space with tools like PowerShell and RGTs we have to consider this threshold to develop with a new set of values.  Is a script with 30 parameters at the top and some blocks of code you have to run manually enough? As opposed to building script with if, then, else, switch and validation logic around this original code.  The logic flow is more than the code for actual deployment. The next level being script to generate the RGTs JSON code or PowerShell syntax dynamically. If this complex code had been using the property VM.OSProfile.virtualharddisks how would the script have responded and would the time to develop (and in the future maintain) this framework, around what is already a fairly streamlined deployment, be worth trading for the time to deploy manually?

Azure Resource Group Templates are a great example, the language is JSON and fairly straight forward at a glance, there are Inputs, Variables, Resources and Outputs. With Azure's rate of changes writing code around this could take weeks and months as opposed to managing several RGTs as the deployments are needed. Devops methodologies are starting to introduce this level of automation into code development and Infrastructure as code is rapidly changing what and how quickly we can rip down an environment and redeploy it.

Investing Time If you do want to invest time, it could be spent working on scripts and policy to reduce cloud costs like turning off VMs over the weekends or machines not tagged properly that were possibly deployed for testing and never deleted which could save more dollars than your time to execute a complex deployment script every month. Perhaps writing PowerShell modules to help with things like reporting or authentication.  Maybe it's worth just reading about what's new instead, I found out about Azure Resource Manager policies months after they were released, keeping up is almost becoming a full time job.

Summary This article doesn't have the answers, it's meant to add new perspective and raise questions about what you automate and how far you push the modularization and reuse of code.