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What is orchestration?

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Orchestration is the coordinated execution of multiple IT automation tasks or processes. Orchestration is usually applied across multiple computer systems, applications, and services to ensure that deployment, configuration management, and other processes are performed in the proper sequence. 

Automation and orchestration are distinct, but related concepts. Automation is the use of software to perform tasks without human intervention, to minimize errors and reduce the time spent manually performing the operations needed to deploy, manage, and scale IT applications and infrastructure. 

Orchestration coordinates automated tasks across multiple systems into higher-order workflows, so that individual tasks can work together to serve a specific function or process.

IT teams manage a wide range of servers, systems, and applications across private data centers, clouds, and edge locations. As IT environments become more complex, automating tasks can improve efficiency and make processes easier to manage—but scaling automation comes with its own challenges. 

Most IT processes involve many individual tasks that need to be automated. And to fully automate a process, the tasks that make it up also need to work together; when one task finishes, it needs to launch the appropriate follow-up task. Some automation solutions can connect tasks into logical workflows, removing the manual labor of triggering actions at the appropriate time. Building these workflows is one element of orchestration. 

But each part of a task can—on its own—involve multi-step workflows that depend on communicating with third-party systems. For example, provisioning a system would typically include orchestrating with hypervisors to create virtual machines, communicating with the network to ensure that connectivity is configured and established, and confirming that any required firewall policies have been put in place. This is where a comprehensive orchestration solution steps in; it can coordinate tasks across disparate systems, allowing IT teams to build fully automated workflows that span entire enterprise use cases.

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Depending on the use case, orchestration is often used to refer to some specific types of IT workflows and the tools that manage them. Kubernetes is a container orchestration tool; it is used to automate the deployment and scaling of containerized applications. Jenkins is used to orchestrate development pipelines; it executes workflows for building, testing, and pushing code to a repository. Both of these processes can be integrated into a larger automated workflow by a comprehensive orchestration solution that can coordinate tasks across third-party systems.

Orchestration solutions can integrate these external tools into higher-order workflows, communicating with every necessary system to automate complete IT processes. While Jenkins can orchestrate application builds, it can’t execute workflows for provisioning, configuration management, security responses, or other use cases; a comprehensive orchestration solution can use Jenkins to build an application and then take that application back, deploy it, and tie it into other IT systems. 

The real action of orchestration happens when different systems and tools are built into logical workflows—so that tasks can interact with external systems to perform every step in a fully automated process, from start to finish. Let’s look at a few example orchestration workflows for some common IT use cases. 

A workflow for deploying a server might include the following steps:

  • Deploy the server.
  • Configure the server. 
  • Assign storage capacity. 
  • Grab an application from a repository, install it, and configure it.  
  • Talk to the firewall or load balancer to make sure it’s configured to allow this new system into its pool and policies. 
  • Update the company ITSM system to confirm that this server has been successfully deployed.

Because this process involves communicating with multiple third-party systems, it is an orchestrated workflow, rather than one big automated task. IT staff may start the workflow, but that’s all they have to do; they get a server back that’s been configured, set up with the standard applications, and integrated into all the necessary tools.

A workflow for provisioning a cloud instance might look like this:

  • Provision the instance.
  • Configure the operating system.
  • Log a ticket in an ITSM system to inform it that the system is active.
  • Update the firewall.
  • Create necessary user accounts with appropriate permissions.
  • Connect the system to an external database.

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Orchestration workflows can also be used for security or threat responses, like if malware is detected on a server. The system being protected—a server—can’t talk to multiple security systems and tools to properly deal with threats, but a good orchestration solution can: 

  • Talk to the switch and firewall to find out where the traffic is coming from. 
  • Configure the IP filters and packet inspection tools to understand the traffic or potential attack.  
  • Configure those systems to send packet info to third-party logging tools to enrich security logs.
  • Isolate the suspect IP address.
  • Put this info into a ticketing system, with the time of attack, IP address, and hardware address—and confirmation that it’s been shut off from the system.  

Once these steps have been automatically executed, security staff can look at the logs, decide if it’s an attack, and trigger the appropriate response—or an event-driven automation solution can do it for them.

Beyond these examples, orchestration can coordinate multiple systems to automatically carry out steps of almost any IT process, improving their consistency and efficiency.

Red Hat® Ansible® Automation Platform and Terraform are both used for orchestration, but their capabilities are much different. 

Once IT teams build workflows that orchestrate tasks across every necessary system and tool, they can then choose the workflow with the end result they want—like build a new server or update an application—and it will automatically perform each step, in the proper order, to produce the same result every time. 

Orchestration also follows and reinforces a DevOps strategy. For example, with a DevOps approach to a CI/CD pipeline, when a developer builds or alters an application’s container image, that change will trigger a brand new image-build and update the clusters that are using it for production. Using an orchestration solution, IT teams can build a workflow so that a code change will automatically launch testing in a User Acceptance Testing (UAT) environment and deploy the application—so that a single update launches a sequence of automated tasks that conclude with the updated application in production. 

Both DevOps and orchestration enable various systems to be worked on in a logical flow, so that processes produce a consistent result. It’s not just automating multiple tasks—it’s launching an entire workflow that talks to every necessary system to produce the desired end result. 

Orchestration allows IT teams to:

  • Deploy applications more quickly and efficiently, resulting in improved customer experiences.
  • Reduce menial tasks and processes to focus on more strategic activities.
  • Minimize performance issues or outages caused by errors or misconfiguration of systems.
  • Improve collaboration across multiple IT domains like network, security, etc.
  • Optimize cost savings by ensuring that systems—such as cloud resources—are decommissioned during periods of low utilization.

Red Hat Ansible Automation Platform is designed to orchestrate systems and tools into automated workflows for every IT use case. While some solutions excel at performing a specific task, Ansible Automation Platform can orchestrate automation for processes that span technologies and domains. With validated and certified content built by over 150 certified partners—and the flexibility to integrate with almost any external tool—you can create workflows that connect operating systems, network devices, storage, and other technologies across on-premise data centers and cloud environments. 

Ansible Automation Platform also helps you glue together your existing tools and systems into end-to-end automation. If you’re already using a third-party tool for a specific task—like application deployment—Ansible Automation Platform can communicate with that tool and build it into a larger workflow that automates every other step of the process, across the operational life cycle. For example, if you need to automate a process that involves 100 different platforms or technologies, Ansible Automation Platform can communicate with all of them and orchestrate every necessary task into a single workflow.

With job templates made from Ansible Playbooks—written in human-readable YAML—IT staff of various skill levels can develop and share automation across teams. Using the workflow visualizer in automation controller, you can choose existing playbooks and templates to map out logical workflows across systems and build conditional rules into each step. Instead of looking at use cases separately, the workflow visualizer helps you build them all—and the operational knowledge involved in them—into a reusable template that will automatically perform the process the same way, every time. 

Ansible Automation Platform includes all the tools you need to implement enterprise-wide automation, including content creation tools, Event-Driven Ansible, added security, and rich analytics. It also includes Red Hat Ansible Lightspeed with IBM watsonx Code Assistant, a generative AI service that can help you accelerate automation adoption by converting expertise into YAML code that scales across teams and domains. When users enter a task request in natural language, Ansible Lightspeed interacts with IBM watsonx foundation models to generate code recommendations for creating playbooks. This service can help team members of various experience levels be more productive, efficient, and accurate, driving more consistent automation across your organization.

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