Windward Insights

IT Orchestration: A Real World Tree House (Part 1)

Written by windward


When I was a child, my grandparents took me to see the Disney movie based on Johann Wyss’ The Swiss Family Robinson. This was in the days when seeing a movie meant going to a theater, and I recall the sense of wonder where anything could happen in that big magic box of a building. The most lasting memory, though, of that childhood experience is of the sprawling tree house the Robinsons built with its connecting paths high in the trees. 
It occurred to me recently that the art/discipline of IT orchestration, better known as Runbook Automation, is a real-world adaptation of that tree house. The Robinsons had a simple need: to navigate their environment safely and without undue costs (effort, materials). Notice we don’t say ‘efficiency’ – more on that later.

Where the Robinsons had trees and vines to work with, we have IT systems and processes, and there are notable parallels between these two sets of resources. Consider the following statement: “We have these big moving structures that have been shaped over time by the environment into imperfect symmetries.” Are we talking about trees or about IT systems? “We need to get from where we are to where we want to be using these structures.” Again, you choose the subject.

When dealing with IT orchestration, we build pathways among our systems and processes using a similar approach to the tree house pathways. Experience has shown us that the best pathways share some common qualities; they are safe, flexible, adapt to growth, can be used to reach more than one destination, and sadly are by their very nature impermanent creations. Like the trees, the systems and processes among which we build our orchestrations are always moving, sometimes a little bit at a time, and sometimes quite a lot over a short time. The purpose of the orchestration is to perform a defined workflow within a given environment, and it is equally unreasonable to expect an orchestration to last indefinitely as it is to expect our suspension walkway to last forever. Trees sometimes grow in opposite directions; sometimes a tree falls in the forest. Sometimes IT systems are changed to fulfill new requirements, and sometimes they are retired. We must make peace with the reality of IT orchestrations not being a “set it and forget it” type of construct. So then how do we obtain good value from our orchestrations?

One of the critical enablers to building good value orchestrations is the skill set of the builder. As years have passed, many IT professionals have evolved from being technology generalists to being specialists in some specific area. Many of us focus our learning and skills on service desk automation, performance management, or on database engineering. Orchestration as a technology is still maturing, and an orchestration builder needs the ability to adapt to this level of maturity – to be more of a generalist working in a “primitive” environment. Ingenuity and flexibility are highly valuable traits – each system and process has evolved uniquely and offers a distinct set of bends and branches to the builder for use in constructing a pathway. To orchestrate successfully, we must survey the environment, assess the tools we have available, and build valuable paths that are safe, flexible, and adaptable. Note that due to our “organic” environment, orchestrations are often utilitarian entities – don’t expend unwarranted effort to create highly polished elegant solutions because the environment will change, and then the beautiful efficient solution will be more suitable for some mythical orchestration museum than for performing a workflow. The value comes from having a suspension bridge made of planks and vines, not from a polished spiral staircase made of mahogany.

To be continued ….

This is part one of a two part series. Next week I’ll share my thoughts on what makes an orchestration safe, flexible, and adaptable.