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The state of IT operations management: 6 trends to watch

Allen Bernard Freelance writer

To survive during the pandemic, organizations have turned to IT operations to help manage the fallout—both negative and positive. Some sectors, such as telehealth and videoconferencing vendors, saw business skyrocket, and IT in such companies had to scramble to handle the load. Others, such as the travel and entertainment sectors, saw business plummet. There's also been a renewed push toward digital transformation.

To figure out the impact of all the changes and what's coming next, we asked top experts to weigh in on the trends and tech that IT operations folk should be paying attention to in the coming year.

Here are the six key trends to watch.

1. Driven by the pandemic, acceptance and adoption of public cloud are accelerating

In early 2020, companies were forced to quickly adapt to a collapsing economy. In response, they turned to the cloud in droves, said Lars Rossen, CTO of Micro Focus. And, despite the additional management complexities an expanded cloud footprint has introduced, the flexibility and agility that the public cloud provided during a time of extreme organizational stress has turned some into big believers.

"In the beginning, moving to public cloud was just about creating your own private data center in Amazon. Now, we are seeing people trying to refactor everything into microservices. They're trying to run it on Kubernetes. They're using the native tool chains on AWS and Azure. They always talked about it, but now they're actually doing it."
Lars Rossen

Over the coming months, expect to see organizations stabilize and then normalize their cloud usage as they rein in operating expenses brought about by the rush to cloud in the early days of the pandemic, said Torrey Jones, principal consultant at the Greenlight Group.

"The cost of cloud sprawl is a real cost. So, if they have increased their usage in the last 12 to 18 months, I would expect them to normalize those costs and be more prescriptive about what is going to the cloud."
Torrey Jones

2. SRE and IT automation will continue to rise

As the need for operational agility and the use of cloud increases the complexity of deploying and running applications, IT operations teams are adopting agile development methods to get new applications, features, and updates into production faster. This includes leaning more heavily on automation, said Rossen.

Moving to cloud is "a brand-new way of deploying applications," he said. "It's much more complicated. To understand it and make sure it's scalable, it's secured, it's stable, etc., is very difficult." And there's a lack of understanding of how to do that, he said.

"The classical operations engineer doesn't really understand source code control system, with all the versioning that [it entails], or the modern development pipelines that allow you to do test, pre-production, and production simply by pressing a button," said Rossen.

These disciplines that operations pros need to learn have led to the rise of the site reliability engineer. The SRE uses source code and orchestration platforms such as Chef, Puppet, and Ansible, which are more typically used by developers to deploy software into production environments.

Another way to help simplify IT Ops is the long-term trend of automating IT operations. This is picking up steam as increasing complexity challenges IT's ability make it all work, said David Linthicum, chief cloud strategy officer at Deloitte.

"We've accelerated the use of different, new technologies in the last three to five years, and that's what's giving us the issue. That's where automation abstraction comes in. We're trying to figure out how to operate these things with the same budgets we had over the last 20 years, and to so without introducing additional risks and outages."
David Linthicum 

In response, IT will need to automate more management and orchestration functions.

3. AI for operations and cyber will continue its ascent

Along similar lines to automation, Linthicum said, the need to reduce operational complexity will push artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML) to the fore. IT teams are looking for ways to break down barriers among cloud, on-premises, and edge systems, as well as the management and orchestration platforms they currently use to run them.

"Now, instead of 10 databases, we have 30," said Linthicum. "Instead of five transaction processors, we have 20, with Kubernetes and all these other things. So now we have AIOps, which spans across clouds, as well as traditional systems management, monitoring layers, things like that."

Look for the AIOps trend to continue unbated as business leaders look for IT to wring ever more value and productivity from existing systems, all the while integrating a whole slate of new ones from the core to the edge, Linthicum said. 

As businesses work through the process of reprioritizing projects put on hold during the pandemic, they are focused on balancing cost and business agility. This also is driving the adoption of AIOps, said Sameer Bhagwat, head of the application managed services center of excellence at Capgemini. IT will need to leverage technologies, including AI, to modernize their infrastructures while meeting the demand for more digital transformation.

"As we are starting to emerge out of the pandemic ... priorities shift a little bit. Cost savings, as in any situation, continue to be important, but that is getting balanced with business agility."
Sameer Bhagwat

4. Build/run will gain new importance as IT embraces product teams and mindsets

In a build/run approach, product development teams take on responsibility for the day-to-day performance of the application or service they have created and deployed. While build/run has been around for over a decade, it is taking on new importance as IT moves from an organization focused on delivering projects to one focused on delivering products, services, and business outcomes, said Charles Betz, lead DevOps analyst at Forrester. 

"Werner Vogels at Amazon proposed it long time ago, but it still has not completely worked its way through the whole ecosystem. A lot of organizations are just now starting to figure out how they might move, at least incrementally, in more of a build/run direction. Certainly, project-based investment is going down."
Charles Betz

5. IT Ops teams will play catch-up on containers, Kubernetes 

Major software vendors are rearchitecting their offerings around microservices that run in containers instead of virtual machines. Likewise, cloud providers are moving to adopt containers and Kubernetes. But many in-house IT teams do not yet have the skills to manage these environments effectively, said Greenlight Group's Jones. IT leaders will need to address this knowledge gap soon. And in this respect, history is repeating itself, said Betz.

"If you walk into any IT operations center and you ask, 'Who knows how to manage a Kubernetes cluster?' you will not get many people to answer the question. Fifteen years ago, the move from physical servers into virtual servers was the same."
—Charles Betz

6. Using data and analytics to answer the perennial 'So what?' question is gaining momentum

While "So what?" is a question business leaders have always asked, in the age of digital transformation, the answer is more important than ever. If IT can't answer that question, it will be more difficult to get the resources it needs to move projects of any type forward. At the end of the day, IT operations is all about business enablement and not IT, Capgemini's Bhagwat said.

Because technology plays such an outsized role in business success, look for the increased adoption of dedicated IT financial management tools that CIOs can use to definitively show business value for money spent by using data rather than anecdotes.

CIOs have to talk the business language, Bhagwat said. 

"If you are not able to clearly document and demonstrate how it is going to benefit you, from a business standpoint, IT almost means nothing. It's hard to justify a $20 million transformation program to improve IT."
—Sameer Bhagwat

It's still about doing more with less

IT operations is under constant pressure to deliver more with less, and as these trends show, that's not abating. This year, driven by a pandemic that is roaring back, business are depending more than ever on IT to come through as they turn to digital transformation to survive. 

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