Month’s end at the Globe Pequot Press used to be especially demanding for the travel book publisher’s IT staff. The firm must issue reports on all its titles, as well as the books it markets and ships for its 20 clients.
Each client gets three reports, and until recently it was most efficient to generate those at night using several PCs. “The status quo was to come in and work your day, go home for dinner, come back at 11 p.m., and go home the next day at 1 p.m.,” says Dan Olver, senior programmer/analyst for the company, based in Guilford, Conn. The small IT group ran backups and internal reports for the first three hours, then turned its attention to cranking out the reports.
A few years ago, Globe Pequot deployed Network Automation’s AutoMate  IT tool to automate the keystrokes required to generate the reports. “It really has saved us a lot of time,” Olver says. “This tool has just been a godsend.” The company also uses the software for batch processing of price and inventory information posted on its website.
Like Globe Pequot, many small and medium businesses are turning to automation to reduce work spent on repetitive tasks. Economic conditions and increased complexity have made 2009 the tipping point for IT automation, according to Glenn O’Donnell, a senior analyst with Forrester Research. “This is going to be one of those times similar to when Henry Ford introduced the assembly line for manufacturing that is going to change how we do IT,” he says.
Manufacturers such as CA, BMC Software, Hewlett-Packard and IBM offer enterprise IT automation tools, while others target small and medium businesses with their products, including Altiris Workflow Solution , NetIQ Aegis, Ipswitch WhatsUp Gold  and SolarWinds ipMonitor .
David Williams, a research vice president at Gartner, says, “People are really starting to adopt these technologies across all industries and sizes.”
Great growth: The run book automation market shot from $15 million in 2006 to $150 million by the end of 2008, according to Gartner.
AMAG Pharmaceuticals of Lexington, Mass., is developing a drug to treat iron deficiency caused by anemia or chronic kidney disease. As the firm prepares for the product launch, its staff has grown from 55 to 275 in the past year. The process of bringing on all those new employees was ripe for automation.
Nate McBride, senior director of IT for AMAG, deployed Altiris Workflow Solution from Symantec early this year to make it easier to bring new employees on board. “We had a bunch of workflows in our help-desk solution that worked pretty well but were missing the hooks that we needed to reach out to people who were involved in the process,” he says. “By using Workflow Solution, we’re able to, on a more granular level, define who gets what activities.”
If someone checks off that a new employee needs a BlackBerry, for example, the right people will be sent e-mail listing the preferred vendor, whether or not the employee is retaining an old number, and so forth.
“Automation guarantees us that when employees sit down on their first day, they have all they need and can start working immediately,” McBride says. “We have zero gap, and that’s important to us.”
Which of the following best characterizes your company’s use of IT automation tools?
11% We have deployed the technology.
36% We have no plans to deploy.
21% What’s IT automation?
14% We are currently evaluating.
10% Don’t know
8% We are in the process of deploying.
Source: CDW Poll of 364 BizTech readers
Going forward, McBride plans to use Altiris Workflow Solution for asset management reporting and IT automation. “The possible uses are so massive. We’re still trying to get our heads around it.”
Mark Kawasaki, an IT project manager for ZC Sterling, a mortgage industry services provider in Atlanta, chose NetIQ Aegis in part because of its tight integration with NetIQ AppManager. The company rolled out Aegis last summer to automate responses to certain conditions, such as low disk space, service outages, password resets and reboot requests. Kawasaki’s goals were to save time and money, gain more consistency with processes and better document what was being done.
Now that the company is implementing a service catalog with standard service request forms, Kawasaki foresees using automation more in the future. “Tightening up the way service requests are submitted will allow us to use automation to fulfill that request,” he says.
While automation insulates staff from complexity, you’ll still need someone in IT with automation skills. “Automation itself requires a fair amount of administration,” says Gartner’s Williams. “It’s a production line in which you have a Ferrari followed by a Mini.”
Globe Pequot originally started with Automate 5.0 and now uses Automate 6.2.8. “One of the downsides is if it goes off the wall, it will try to enter customer records,” says Olver. “The newer version is more friendly, so you can say ‘stop, don’t go there.’”
ZC Sterling’s Kawasaki recommends beginning with well-established processes. “It doesn’t do much good to automate a bad or incomplete process,” he observes.
Forrester’s O’Donnell points out that if you have poor processes, automation tools in fact can make things worse. “All tools are doing is accelerating the execution of your processes,” he says. “If your process is bad, you will do bad things faster.”