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Avantra remasters automation engine for intelligent SAP operations - CEO John Appleby explains

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez December 14, 2021
Avantra is seeking to shift the cost balance for SAP operations managers away from mostly maintenance to investing in the new.

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Avantra has found itself a niche - one that it is seeking to double down on - in helping operations managers more intelligently look after their SAP landscapes through its automation platform. 

We've written previously about how SAP operations managers are perpetually faced with grueling complexity and spend much of their time struggling to keep the lights on - a situation that cannot persist, particularly as the industry faces increased security threats and an ongoing talent war

In other words, Avantra believes that automation is needed as these challenges come together to create a perfect storm. CEO John Appleby also argues that those managing SAP estates need to shift the cost balance from maintenance to investment, if they are going to support the business in its digital transformation efforts. 

In recent weeks Avantra announced the launch of its latest Enterprise Edition AIOps platform - the 21.11 release - and that it has acquired FogLogic Intellectual Property, which adds to the company's AI and ML capabilities. 

This week I caught up with Appleby to better understand how Avantra is thinking about automation in the context of its new release, where he explained that the vendor has completely refactored its automation engine to solve more complex use cases and is now capable of solving much more complex business process problems. Appleby said: 

The first automation engine that we built was for the purpose of doing linear type activities: you do this, then you do this, if it fails, then you do that. You could think of it as a simple branching mythology. 

What we've built this time around is a full BPMN base, so we've thought of IT automation as a business process. And if you think of it as a business process, then you start to really change about how you create these workflows, because they're much more sophisticated operators. With our original automation engine you just couldn't do the sort of sophisticated logic that's required. 

For example, one scenario we're building out now is the system refresh, which is a copy of a system for development purposes. That probably has 200 steps that have to happen in a certain order, depending on what happens. Some steps are serialized, some have to run multiple times in parallel - but that's all possible with what we've built now. 

The three pillars of automation

Appleby said that the key takeaway is that Avantra is moving towards creating a semi-autonomous environment for running SAP operations. He said: 

That's something that nobody else is really focusing on. It's already our niche, but we are doubling down on that niche. There are three pillars in our minds, in terms of what you need to do to achieve that. 

The first pillar to this is ‘observability'. Appleby explained that one of the biggest problems customers of the vendor have is understanding exactly what they have installed and how it's configured. And you need to really feed that information into a central repository (either via Avantra's CMDB, or via the integration with ServiceNow). Appleby added: 

The other piece of ‘observability' is ‘how things ought to be'. With Enterprise Edition, we also have AI algorithms for doing smart prediction of how things will be in the future. One example of that, which really hurts our customers, is that when something goes through a threshold, you create a notification for a service management system and somebody has to deal with it. 

About 95% of the time, that's a transient condition. It's a little bit like the temperature goes too high, but then it comes back down again - and enormous amounts of time is wasted. Looking into these transient conditions, we can now predict ahead whether that is a transient condition, or whether we believe it's going to be a permanent issue. And we only then raise the flag if it's going to be a permanent issue. 

Avantra believes that this capability is going to remove between 90-95% of those false alarms for organizations. For a small organization that can mean eradicating hundreds of tickets a month, if you're a large service provider, that could mean thousands of tickets that are no longer get created. 

The second pillar that the Enterprise Edition supports is ‘engage', which is all about IT operations management, IT service management and tooling. Essentially what this comes down to is knowing: what is the system? What is the environment? Who is the right person to reach out to? What's the service level agreement? Who needs to be communicated with? And what do you need from them? 

And finally, the third pillar is ‘act', which is all about what needs to be done and understanding whether it can be automated. Appleby said: 

The big feature here is our advanced automation engine, which we've completely rebuilt for the 21.11 release. It's now a really, really sophisticated automation engine that can do almost anything in an SAP context. You can do almost anything to a cluster of systems, a set of systems, a landscape of systems. 

If we take a simple scenario, it's what we're calling the Hot News analysis. So Hot News are these CVEs [a list of critical vulnerabilities], which are released by SAP through an API framework. And today what happens is you get an email, then you need to go and figure out which systems it impacts, you have to go around all your inventory systems, you have to create a change request for all of those systems, which then goes out for authorization, and then that goes into a resolver workflow for an IT person to download a piece of software to apply it, test it and put it back. 

Appleby said that a single CVE can take hundreds of man hours of work to resolve - and that's if they do it at all. Some organizations just don't do anything about them and then they are left vulnerable. On Avantra's capabilities, he adds: 

We automatically consume this API. Before you even get the email from SAP, we've identified which systems in the landscape it applies to, which are a problem. Now we can go out through a ServiceNow workflow to identify the owners of the system and say ‘hey, you're the owner of this environment, this is the CVE, this is the link to it, this is the severity, you need to prioritize when you'd like to do this'. 

And then we've got an autometer in our automation engine that will apply that change. We get the software from SAP, we wait for the scheduled downtime window to appear, take down the system, patch it, and bring it back up again. 

Supporting the business

Appleby said that the key thing to note with the Enterprise Edition's automation framework is that it has been built to enable Avantra to distribute additional packages of software out to teams, continuously. Avantra is planning a big release next October, but expects a smaller update in Q1 that will support approximately 20 use cases. One that looks interesting is automating payroll data. Appleby explained: 

Some of the things that really excite me are things like data refreshes. So, if on a monthly basis you want to get the latest payroll data out of a production system into a payroll test environment, because you need to do a test payroll before you do the real one, we can just automate that as a process that runs monthly. 

However, as we've noted previously, whilst Avantra is focused on the technical capabilities of its platforms, ultimately this is about changing the role of operations managers and enabling a different approach to how they support the business. Appleby wants to see SAP operations managers shift gears from maintenance to investment, as this is what the business needs to support its digital transformation efforts. He said: 

The reality is that as an IT organization, every CIO is thinking: how do I help my business transform? The big thing that gets in the way of that is running the environments. And if you take a typical SAP customer, they spend 70% of their IT budget running SAP and 30%, doing new stuff. That 70% of money spent is a total disaster.

I would say look at that 70% and then look at where there are opportunities to cut costs. If you look at the sort of problems that we help solve, we take away monitoring automation, issue identification ahead of time - you can put automation software in place that takes care of that extremely important, but automatable stuff. So those resources get freed up to actually do the transformation that you're not able to do.

My take

What we do know is that many companies view their SAP environments as an island that they just need to keep stable - and that that effort is typically focused on putting out fires, rather than exposing applications to support innovation efforts. With companies struggling to find talent, on a very basic level, automation needs to be used to provide a secure environment. But more broadly speaking, the talent in organizations is wasted if it's just being applied to maintenance, rather than supporting the business. If Avantra's latest release lives up to its promise (and we are asking to speak to customers to get those use cases), then even some small automation wins could yield some good results for companies. 

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