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Robotic process automation is expanding outside the back office

Software robots make life easier in the data center

A significant transformation is occurring in the back offices of enterprises across the globe. Many label it as the rise of the robots, but a more appropriate term is robotic process automation (RPA). While the connection between robotics and RPA may be somewhat loosely defined, the simple fact is RPA is just a fancy acronym for a software robot, or “bot” in IT vernacular. RPA brings forth technology that combines scripting with intelligence and execution. It is a combination of automated prowess that has been a real boon for back-office operations.

Yet, for all its ability to drive productivity and reduce manual labor, RPA has been met with fear. That fear—of job losses and staff reductions—has a very human element, leading to unfounded assumptions about robots. And nowhere is that fear greater than in the data center, where highly paid professionals feel threatened by the rise of the bots, with suspicions that RPA will reduce their relevance to overall operations and put data center operators out on the street.

Yet, nothing could be further from the truth, except for a select few who fill their days with busy work or, at the very least, trying to look busy.

The rise of the data center bots

When RPA first appeared on the scene a few years back, it was little more than the logical evolution of scripting. The early bots were simplistic, using little more than boolean logic to move processes ahead. They proved to be great for performing repetitive tasks, such as running reports, transferring data, and so on. Many IT professionals were exposed to those pre-historic bots in the early days of computing, where automation driven by scripting was just starting to take hold. Scripted events—backup execution, inventory scans, or any other manual and tedious process—lent themselves to scripted commands.

However, automation experts came to see the value of advanced scripting, as long as some intelligence could be wrapped around it, which gave birth to RPA. RPA solutions started coming to the market, employing technologies such as machine learning, artificial intelligence, natural language processing, and other techniques that gave bots the power to make decisions. Those smart bots were quickly deployed into back-office operations to handle everything from data capture to data entry to customer services, successfully bringing forth a 24/7 workforce that need not be paid or provided with any of the perks humans have come to expect.

While organizations adopting RPA were rewarded with increased productivity and lower operating costs, others were impacted negatively. Take, for example, providers of outsourced or offshoring services for back-office operations. A recent report by Deloitte shows that business process outsourcing jobs negatively impacted by RPA include claims or loan application processing, customer service agents, compliance reporting, entry-level accounting, data abstraction, and document indexing.

However, extrapolating the same threat to data center operations tells a different story. Deloitte reports that RPA will bring additional benefits beyond cost savings to adopters. Those benefits include:

  • Decreased cycle times and improved throughput
  • Flexibility and scalability
  • Improved accuracy
  • Detailed data capture
  • Improved employee morale 

While some may question the assertion that RPA can improve employee morale, RPA frees employees from mundane and repetitive tasks, allowing them to focus on work that brings value to the organization and therefore raises their status in the data center.

“RPA is not a threat to IT workers," said Christian Lind, an IT director at Nebraska Cancer Specialists, in a round table presentation at the recent SpiceWorld event. "It will free them up to do more important tasks and will help to improve uptime as well as productivity.” William Brown, information security officer at Engaging Solutions, added, “We have seen immediate benefits with RPA, especially when using it to triage help desk requests, where the system can automatically resolve some problems by asking the proper questions and then providing answers that users can execute on.”

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Brad Bishop, a systems administrator at Lamar University, also offered an optimistic view on RPA: “Positive change is coming from new technologies such as RPA, which has enormous potential to streamline operations, improve security, and bring enhanced efficiency to IT operations. RPA is one of those technologies that IT professionals can choose to master and have it do their bidding, turning into a tool that enhances their jobs.”

RPA in the data center

With the fear of bots quelled, many CIOs and data center managers are wondering how to best adopt RPA and where to apply the technology. Arguably, data center operations today are all about doing more with less, and are on the leading edge of transforming wetware into processes that bring additional value to business operations. That said, it becomes very clear that RPA, especially in the form of intelligent automation, can bring unprecedented efficiencies to operations. Case in point is data center management, where bots can be created to perform backups, spool up virtual machines on demand, move data from near online to online systems, resolve issues. and so on. It all comes down to the level of imagination present and the ability to identify tasks that lend themselves well to automation.

However, RPA is much more than macros or scripts. RPA introduces a level of intelligence that allows bots to make decisions, which lets them act as an intelligent automation agent. For example, bots can be deployed to monitor network traffic and trained to take action based on a threshold being achieved. What’s more, the bots can use pattern recognition along with analytics to define the thresholds in real time, allowing them to react much faster than any human can.

Such capabilities bode well for data centers that need to be elastic and are under constant security threats. Bots can be built to recognize usage patterns, normalized traffic, CPU cycles, and so forth as a basis for scaling up or down. Activities that once spurred a technician into action can now be automated. Intelligent automation has also proved to be a good line of defense against malware, ransomware, and data leakage. With bots monitoring activity, normalized patterns of usage can be deducted and expected behaviors of applications, users, and other elements can be gauged. When activity falls out of norms, bots can take action using either predetermined rules or even more creative responses driven by AI.

Another RPA advantage is the normalization of processes and procedures. By removing the variable actions of humans from a process, data centers can expect a higher level of standardization with much more predictable outcomes. That in itself is a boon for organizations driven by compliance regulations, where following procedures is a critical aspect of meeting compliance.

Sagi Brody, chief technology officer at Webair, a data center hosting provider, says, “Data is growing at an exponential rate, and we are constantly scaling up to meet our customer demands. RPA has allowed us to meet those growth needs and still maintain 24/7 availability, regardless of the loads placed on our data center. Simply put, many of the things we do would not be possible without intelligent automation.”

The future of RPA

While need is surely driving RPA adoption, there is much more to be expected from the technology. RPA is gaining more intelligence, better using machine learning algorithms, and executing more efficiently. On the horizon are capabilities such as natural language processing and cognitive automation, which means bots will become more intelligent and ultimately more adaptable to rapidly changing situations.

Those advancements will allow bots to respond to unforeseen errors and adapt accordingly, without human intervention and unlike the screen-scraping bots of the past. Future RPA will be able to apply judgement and creativity to the workflow, while also learning and adapting to processes. Or more simply put, the bots will learn how to be better bots. What’s more, the intelligent bots will transform how enterprises approach their business activities, especially when it comes to scale, process improvement, and workflow orchestration—many of the same principles that have their core in the data center.

There is no doubt about it: The bots are coming. But they are not coming for your jobs. They are coming as intelligent assistants that will help expand the value of data and, more important, those who manage that data—an assumption backed by a McKinsey &Co. report on emerging technologies, which predicts that automation technologies such as RPA will have a potential economic impact of nearly $6.7 trillion by 2025.

Robotic process automation: Lessons for leaders

  • RPA is an evolutionary technology. The basic concepts are familiar to IT staff.
  • Operational improvements go beyond cost savings, enabling more efficient overall data center IT.
  • Exponential data growth requires RPA adoption to keep up with the demands of the data center.

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.