When the future is held by digital platform businesses (which are already outperforming S&P 500 companies), IT orchestration becomes key for success
Alibaba, Amazon, Airbnb, Facebook, Uber — all of these companies have several things in common. They don’t need additional assets to grow fast, and they know how to scale through the network effect via digitally enabled collaborations.
Also, they’re all platforms — a term that refers to a technology architecture and business model that a lot of companies now aspire to adopt. Rightfully so, as platforms are beating products across most verticals. In fact, McKinsey expects that by 2025, digital ecosystem players will generate over 30% of global corporate revenue (approximately $60 trillion).
So why isn’t every company a platform yet?
Because technologically speaking, digital ecosystems are more than just a curated collection of partners. They’re complex, multi-faceted systems that require meticulous fine-tuning and orchestration to grow bigger and bolder and scale effectively.
What sets big tech leaders apart from traditional businesses today is that the former have already perfected the act of business orchestration, while the latter are still very early in the IT automation game.
This lack of automation (i.e. leanness) means that traditional companies need more:
- people to support the same operational processes
- time to bring new offerings to the market
- resources to add new ecosystem players
- dollars to keep the entire venture moving forward
All of the above is directly reflected in corporate figures.
Source: World Economic Forum — Platforms and Ecosystems: Enabling the Digital Economy
So how do tech-led, digital-native companies manage to get ahead with fewer people in less time?
The short answer is that they automate and orchestrate the majority of IT and operational processes powering their platforms.
Orchestration vs automation: Where do I begin with optimizing my operations?
Every tech ecosystem has a lot of “players” — pipelines, workflows, tasks, and processes moving in different directions to push business operations in the desired direction.
Some systems are simple and streamlined, with all workflows going in one direction.
Other systems are multi-faceted and contain multiple one-way and two-way data flows within them powered by an underlying platform — a tech structure that allows for building and running multiple products using the same technological framework.
As you transition to a platform business model, the volume of moving parts — tasks, data flows, apps, and so on — that needs to be managed grows exponentially. Thanks to the network effect, a single inefficient process can translate into significant bottlenecks down the line. And the more inefficiencies you have, the more complex and messier your entire platform will eventually become, ultimately leading to failure.
In short, platforms are difficult to sustain. You constantly need to add checks and balances to ensure the stability of your platform, all applications running on top of it, and all partners participating in it.
The simplest way to avoid chaos is to engage in process optimization to make everything on your platform move effectively.
Automation and orchestration are two methods you can use for that purpose.
What is IT automation?
Automation in IT means programming a task to run on its own, either on-premises or in the cloud. For example, you can automatically:
- start or stop a workload
- schedule data backups
- provision extra resources
The idea is simple: Say that some app running on your platform needs to back up data every Monday. That can be automated.
What is orchestration, then?
IT orchestration takes the idea of automation one step further by programming the automated execution of a process (or workflow) that involves multiple tasks and/or systems.
In this sense, process orchestration means automating a series of individual tasks.
Service orchestration, in turn, is the automatic coordination and management of systems (hosting individual tasks and processes) spanning different cloud growth vectors and domains.
In essence, a simple orchestration definition would look like this:
Orchestration is the process of stitching together all elements of your infrastructure — computer systems; middleware, cloud, and on-premises services; plus data storage units — so they play nicely together.
If you’re running a complex digital solution (platform or not), you already know that multiple operations can be optimized with orchestration:
- Deployment orchestration, the pillar of DevOps, is the complex process of building an automated cloud-based pipeline that merges, automates, and coordinates various aspects of development, quality assurance, and deployments.
- Infrastructure orchestration is aimed at reducing the complexities of deploying, executing, and managing different configurations across the entire infrastructure (both cloud and on-premises).
- Cloud orchestration is the process of streamlining connections and interactions between different processes and workloads running on public, hybrid, and private clouds.
As you can see, there are a lot of areas where orchestration can replace low-value, error-prone work with one-click, no-conflict automated execution.
Now let’s take this idea one step further. If you’re running an already complex ecosystem, you may soon realize that orchestrating things across the board isn’t that simple. Neither is managing your newly minted orchestration framework spanning different types of services: cloud, networking, analytics, ITSM, payments, etc.
Survey: What challenges does your organization face or expect to face in managing service orchestration?
Source: Forrester —Service Orchestration: Increasing the Efficiency of Hybrid IT
Enter orchestration platforms
While there’s no lack of process and task-specific IT orchestration tools, up until recently, few to no comprehensive orchestration services were available on the market. However, as businesses began embracing platform-based or marketplace-based business models, the need for a master orchestration system that can tackle automation across a wide range of systems, services, and workflows grew more urgent.
And whenever there’s a pressing need, a tech solution is sure to come.
Service orchestration and automation platforms (SOAPs) allow I&O [infrastructure and operations] leaders to design and implement business services through a combination of workflow orchestration, run book automation, and resource provisioning across an organization’s hybrid digital infrastructure. SOAPs provide a unified administration console and an orchestration engine to manage data pipelines and event-driven application workflows. Some tools expose APIs and include mobile apps for scheduling batch processes, monitoring task statuses, and alerting users when new events are triggered. – Gartner
Service orchestration platforms are not completely new offerings per se. Rather, they’re the next evolutionary step in IT automation, aimed at introducing more comprehensive and scalable levels of automation across a wide range of processes:
- Workflow automation across multiple applications running in hybrid cloud environments
- Event-driven automation for IT processes that involve manual steps
- Business process automation and optimization for domain-specific flows (e.g. payments and analytics)
- Self-service automation for a broad range of ITSM tasks
- Optimized provisioning of computing, network, and storage resources across environments
- Testing and deployment automation as well as automated release management as part of CI/CD
How does platform orchestration compare to DevOps?
DevOps automation tools and practices are focused on making software development and delivery processes fast, efficient, and automated. In that sense, continuous integration and continuous development (CI/CD) tools enable automated tests, builds, and version control along with standardized feature-level configurations for all packaged software scheduled for deployment.
Orchestration tools and platforms, in turn, complement and expand the capabilities of DevOps toolchains. For instance, you can use an extra process orchestrator to automate the provisioning of extra cloud resources for specific pre-production environments or deploy configuration updates across the board.
SOAPs augment and multiply the practices set forth by DevOps across a wide array of tech and business processes.
Benefits and use cases of orchestration platforms
As some companies undergo rapid digitization, they assemble tech ecosystems that end up being complex puzzles.
As new digital partners (apps built on top of your platform; third-party players connected via APIs) enter your ecosystem, the challenges of making everyone work together effectively skyrocket.
Imagine if you had to start your workday by sending a personal check-in message to all of your contacts on Slack, listening to who needs to connect with whom, and then re-routing all requests to the right recipients while ensuring that nothing gets messed up. (I’m sincerely sorry if that sounds like your typical day.)
Well, some tech back ends operate similarly — there are lots of elements that need to “talk” and too few connectors to make that happen.
Orchestration platforms sit as an extra connectivity layer on top of all your applications, systems, and infrastructure to automate interactions between them. They act as connectors, helping you build a series of streamlined, repeatable, and cost-effective processes that run on autopilot.
Afterward, things get simple: Automating a repeatable process results in productivity and efficiency gains plus cost reductions. 10x more automated processes and workflows = 10x higher gains.
And that’s how you run your operations with fewer people and at a lower cost like the platform leaders. Another perk? You can scale the positive impact of orchestration by adding extra automation tools to your chain:
Source: Gartner — Market Guide for Service Orchestration and Automation Platforms
That’s great. But what types of use cases do orchestration platforms support? Can I really automate everything?
Not quite yet. But you can orchestrate technologies, processes, and systems that underpin:
- APIs and microservices
- network services
- SaaS, IaaS, and hybrid cloud workloads
- IT infrastructure
- IT service management
- data management and analytics
- business and customer-facing applications
That’s a lot of places where even small performance gains can result in major operational benefits.
Future platforms need platform orchestration
The average successful digital ecosystem now counts 40 partners. Making them talk and work together isn’t so simple, however, as traditional automation strategies fall short in heterogeneous IT environments.
That’s why tech-led companies (or anyone with an aspiration to become one) should get strategic with their orchestration decisions. Conduct a deep investigation of your existing processes, workflows, and pipelines. Gauge their effectiveness (or lack thereof). Collect operational data to prioritize areas for improvement within different systems. Finally, perform a preliminary SOAP vendor assessment to understand what’s feasible and what’s not.