Hurd eyes IT automation as boon for users, HP

In Hewlett-Packard's brave new IT world, some data centers will be run without people. And in the ones where IT technicians are still needed, workers will be able to manage ten times the number of servers they do now, thanks to increased automation.

That's the vision sketched out by HP CEO Mark Hurd at a meeting with securities analysts in New York last week. Hurd predicted that automation -- not "labor arbitrage," or cutting labor costs through offshoring and other means -- is going to become the leading IT cost-saving tool in the years ahead.

But HP faces some big hurdles in its effort to convince IT managers that Hurd's automation plan will actually lead to major benefits for users.

First, HP has to clean up its own IT operations, which it wants to use as a showcase to convince users that automation can make a difference. The company plans to spend US$2.8 billion on capital improvements during its current fiscal year, much of it on IT projects, including the consolidation of more than 85 data centers into just six facilities. That represents a 40 percent increase over HP's capital budget for the year that ended Oct. 31, when it spent just shy of US$2 billion.

Second, HP is going to have to demonstrate that a ratio of one technician for every 200 servers is possible through the use of virtualization and automation technologies. The typical ratio now is about 1-to-20, said Ann Livermore, executive vice president of HP's Technology Solutions Group. Eye on Support Ratios

Dave Dully, chief technology officer at Baptist Health System Inc. in Jacksonville, Fla., has 225 servers running Windows and NetWare, and seven technicians -- or about one for every 36 machines. That's a relatively high ratio, helped by Baptist Health's standardized IT environment. But getting to a ratio of 1-to-200 "is not anything I can envision at this point," because of the uniqueness of individual servers, Dully said.

Enterprise management tools such as application provisioning and rapid deployment software should help improve the current ratio, Dully said. But he added that using virtualization technology to increase server utilization, which the health care provider is exploring, may lower the support ratios because it increases system complexity.

Larry Buettner, CIO at Wheels, a transportation fleet leasing firm, has four technicians managing 120 servers and doesn't see that ratio changing for the next five years. Buettner said he does expect the systems administration parts of a technician's job to decrease. But he thinks there will be an increase in the amount of work related to administering third-party software and networks. Tools for automating those tasks are still in the early development stages, according to Buettner.

After listening to Hurd's speech, Gartner analyst Carl Claunch said the push for more automation is an industrywide phenomenon. But, he said, it will take three to four years for most data centers to begin to realize higher server management ratios, because they are "burdened with lots of legacy."

Rich Ptak, an analyst at Ptak, Noel & Associates, said HP's long-term belief that one data center technician will be able to manage 200 servers is realistic. "IT is on the cusp of applying all the power of IT that was directed outside its operations to its internal operations," Ptak said. He added, though, that HP will have to extend its OpenView line of management tools and develop software for managing dynamic IT environments in order to make such automation feasible.

-- Reporter Matt Hamblen contributed to this story.

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