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Why Autonomous Cloud Management is the Future

Published on
Last updated on

June 10, 2024

Max 3 min
Why Autonomous Cloud Management is the Future


In today's fast-paced and demanding IT world, professionals and individuals face increasing pressure to do more with less time for evaluation and beta testing. The focus on delivering value to customers is often overshadowed by flashy marketing gimmicks. However, customer satisfaction is crucial for business success. The realm of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) has shifted towards practical applications and collaborative autonomy, where autonomous systems work together with humans.

This article delves into the practical aspects of autonomy, discussing the challenges and benefits of implementing autonomous cloud management in various industries. It highlights insights from industry experts on the transition to autonomy, practical approaches, building trust, and managing expectations. The article showcases real-world examples of organizations such as Palo Alto Networks, Paylocity, and Fabric that have successfully implemented autonomous systems to enhance productivity, efficiency, and customer satisfaction. As businesses strive to meet evolving customer needs and maintain their competitive edge, autonomous cloud management emerges as a promising solution for the future. You can watch the full video here.

Balancing Autonomy and Customer Satisfaction in a Fast-Paced IT World

According to Matt Howard, General Partner at NVP, today's rapidly evolving IT world, both professionals and individuals are facing increasing demands and expectations. We find ourselves constantly being asked to do more with less, leaving little time for beta testing and evaluation. The lines between work and personal life have blurred, and the pressure to deliver results is ever-present. It is worth noting that the US boasts the highest productivity globally, with Silicon Valley standing out as a hub of exceptional productivity. However, amidst this fast-paced environment, there is a concern that too much focus is placed on flashy marketing gimmicks rather than on delivering value to customers.

Matt Howard also emphasizes the importance of customer satisfaction and the impact it has on business success. 

With customer acquisition and retention as critical objectives across industries, delivering excellent results becomes paramount. In the realm of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), the focus has shifted towards practical applications rather than overhyped expectations. As Elon Musk has pointed out, humans remain invaluable in this context.

Drawing a parallel to the evolution of car transmissions, Matt highlights the shift from manual to automatic as an analogy for the progression of autonomy. Just as automatic transmissions gradually outperformed manual ones, collaborative autonomy is emerging, where autonomous systems work in partnership with humans. 

This discussion aims to delve into the practical aspects of autonomy, considering the constant adjustments required to meet customer needs and maintain their satisfaction.

The Transition to Autonomy: Striving for the Ideal State

During our discussion, Suresh Sangiah, Senior Vice President of Engineering at Palo Alto Networks, highlighted the dichotomy between achieving complete autonomy and the current reality of operating a mission-critical service. Recognizing the indispensable nature of their services for thousands of customers, Suresh emphasized that a complete delegation to an autonomous system without human involvement is not yet feasible. The ramifications of even minimal downtime during the pandemic were profound, making a margin for error non-existent.

Practical Autonomy: Balancing Pragmatism and Innovation

Acknowledging the need for practical autonomy, Suresh resonated with Matt's comments on being pragmatic in the approach. Palo Alto Networks recognizes that while complete autonomy is an aspirational end state, it must be achieved gradually and selectively. 

The aim is to automate analysis processes such as security policy reviews, adapting to the evolving needs of enterprises without requiring continuous human intervention. By inferring automated alerts when discrepancies occur, the system prompts human intervention only when necessary. Furthermore, the organization leverages telemetry data for automated root cause analysis, allowing for prompt action and closure. However, Suresh acknowledges that there will always be scenarios where human expertise is indispensable, warranting alerts and manual intervention.

Overcoming Bottlenecks: Results and Innovation Potential

When discussing the initial stages of autonomy implementation, Matt inquired about the outcomes and potential bottlenecks. Suresh highlighted the positive results achieved thus far, though the rate of integrating trusted autonomy into their operational path remains the primary bottleneck.

 To accelerate their journey, Suresh sought opportunities to collaborate with organizations like Sedai and explore emerging technologies such as serverless computing. As a security company, Palo Alto Networks understands that extending autonomy requires expanding visibility beyond their own assets. The ultimate goal is to improve security outcomes for their customers and maintain their status as a trusted security partner.

Building Trust and Overcoming Resistance

Implementing autonomy within an organization can raise concerns and insecurities among employees. Suresh addressed this potential issue, sharing that Palo Alto Networks experienced a different dynamic. The organization's rapid growth during the pandemic created a demand that their existing team struggled to meet. The introduction of autonomy was seen as a positive change, relieving employees of the burden of round-the-clock operations. However, Suresh acknowledged that introducing autonomy in legacy organizations might create discomfort when certain tasks become automated. Palo Alto Networks aims to leverage autonomy to improve efficiency while investing in innovation and maintaining core competencies.

The Road Ahead: Defining Core Competencies and Scaling Autonomy

Looking to the future, Suresh emphasized the importance of clearly defining core competencies and distinguishing them from tasks that can be outsourced or automated through partnerships. As a security and zero trust access provider, Palo Alto Networks intends to align operational aspects with their overarching goals. The roadmap focuses on gathering more telemetry, enhancing monitoring and alerting capabilities, and progressively delegating operational responsibilities to autonomous systems. The aim is to achieve non-linear growth while minimizing reliance on manual intervention.

The journey toward autonomy at Palo Alto Networks exemplifies the careful balance between delivering mission-critical services and embracing innovative technologies. By adopting a practical approach

Automation as the Foundation for Autonomy

Rachit Lohani, CTO and SVP of Paylocity explains that Paylocity's approach to autonomy begins with automation. While automation streamlines processes, autonomy takes it a step further, allowing systems to make decisions and execute tasks independently. Paylocity's initial focus has been on automating various aspects, such as payroll processing for thousands of businesses. Building resilient systems that can be trusted to handle critical tasks, like payroll, involves monitoring by humans. However, Paylocity envisions a future where these processes become end-to-end, real-time, and self-monitoring, ensuring accuracy and efficiency.

Automation in Software Development

Software development is another area where automation plays a critical role. Rachit acknowledges that automating mundane tasks, such as library upgrades, is a significant step. However, the creative aspects of building features and capabilities require human intervention and end-to-end thinking. While full autonomy in software development may not be feasible in the near term, automation can significantly reduce manual, repetitive tasks. By leveraging automation, Paylocity empowers its workforce to focus on innovation, disruptive thinking, and delivering next-gen solutions to the market.

Building Trust in Autonomous Systems

Transitioning from automation to autonomy requires building trust within the organization. Rachit describes how Paylocity introduced autonomous systems gradually, running them in dry run mode initially. These systems made decisions and executed tasks without impacting production, allowing the organization to review and evaluate their performance against human-operated processes. After six months of meticulous analysis, Paylocity gained confidence in the autonomous systems' capabilities. Regular monitoring and validation ensure that the systems continue to perform reliably, while humans intervene only when necessary. The result is a symbiotic relationship where autonomous systems free up valuable time for employees to focus on value-added tasks and innovation.

Strategic Alignment and Managing Expectations

Addressing the push and pull dynamic between technological innovation and organizational expectations, Rachit highlights the importance of strategic alignment. Paylocity identified areas where teams were spending time on tasks that didn't excite them or add value. By automating these mundane tasks through autonomous systems, Paylocity enables employees to concentrate on more fulfilling work. Instead of reacting to external pressures, Paylocity's approach revolves around strategic alignment, ensuring that the introduction of new tools is part of a cohesive, long-term vision.

Vigilance and Metrics-Based Monitoring

Maintaining vigilance in an environment where certain tasks are outsourced to autonomous systems is crucial. Paylocity addresses this by closely monitoring key metrics related to availability, reliability, and performance. Teams review these metrics regularly.

Implementing Autonomy and Efficiency

Rachit also explains the ROI and justification for implementing autonomy in their company. As the biggest expense is engineering cost, Rachit focuses on increasing productivity. By demonstrating that a tool can recoup 1 to 5% of engineering time, he gains support from CFOs who prioritize efficiency. Although additional headcount may be reduced.

Rachit emphasizes the importance of having effective and efficient employees. He also mentions the gradual elimination of tasks through automation, drawing parallels to the transition from OS optimization to automated systems. Rachit highlights the need to identify and eliminate non-essential skills to fully embrace a more autonomous and automated future.

The Challenge of Rapid Growth

As a leading e-commerce headless commerce solution provider, fabric experienced exponential growth. Prakash Muppirala, EVP Platform, fabric, highlighted the complex nature of their industry, where multiple interconnected services must function harmoniously for success. Previously, fabric's SRE team was primarily focused on manually managing the operational environment, including tasks like auto scaling, Lambda warming, resiliency, and graceful degradation. Prakash emphasized that even a minor failure in any microservice could lead to a significant impact on the overall system performance.

The Benefits of Autonomous Capabilities

fabric recognized the need for automation to improve efficiency and optimize resource allocation. Prakash explained that after implementing autonomous capabilities, their SRE team could shift their focus from managing the operating environment to enhancing the core commerce applications. By automating tasks such as compute management, auto-sizing, and more, fabric experienced significant resource savings, which enabled their engineers to concentrate on critical business functions.

Deploying Autonomous Solutions

Matt inquired about the challenges faced during the deployment process to ensure a smooth transition without disrupting the organization. Prakash mentioned that fabric had established well-defined playbooks for recovery and restoration in the pre-autonomy era. The introduction of Sedai, their autonomous solution, aimed to automate mundane tasks while still adhering to established playbooks. Prakash emphasized the importance of a hybrid model, where autonomy worked in tandem with human intervention when necessary. This seamless handoff between automated and manual actions ensured that fabric's operations remained uninterrupted.

Building Trust and Overcoming Resistance

Addressing concerns about potential resistance from within the IT organization, Matt queried Prakash about the steps taken to build trust among SRE engineers and other stakeholders. Prakash highlighted the transition from an operating environment-oriented focus to a more functional and application-centric approach. fabric's engineers embraced this shift, appreciating the opportunity to focus on higher-value tasks while automation took care of routine activities. The transition was seamless, with clear communication and understanding among team members.

Lessons Learned and Future Considerations

As fabric's Sedai deployment grew in scale, Prakash reflected on lessons learned and offered advice to fellow professionals exploring autonomy. He recommended starting with automation of build and deployment processes before venturing into runtime automation. Prakash stressed the significance of understanding the interdependencies between stateless machines, modular services, and third-party vendors. By automating the tuning of these vendors' operations environments, businesses can ensure a cohesive ecosystem that enhances customer success.

The conversation between Matt Howard and Prakash Muppirala shed light on the transformative power of autonomous capabilities in achieving rapid growth and operational efficiency. Fabric's journey exemplifies the seamless integration of autonomy into existing operations, emphasizing the importance of clear communication, hybrid models, and building trust within the organization. As businesses move towards embracing autonomy, understanding the interplay of various services and third-party integrations becomes vital for sustainable success in the digital landscape.

The discussions with Suresh Sangiah from Palo Alto Networks, Rachit Lohani from Paylocity, and Prakash Muppirala from fabric shed light on the practical aspects of implementing autonomy in different industries. The prevailing sentiment is that while complete autonomy is an aspirational goal, it is essential to take a pragmatic approach and gradually integrate automation and autonomous capabilities. The speakers emphasized the importance of delivering value to customers and maintaining their satisfaction. They recognized that human expertise remains indispensable in certain scenarios and that the goal should be collaborative autonomy, where autonomous systems work in partnership with humans.

Building trust within the organization and overcoming resistance to autonomy were also key topics of discussion. The speakers highlighted the need for clear communication, gradual implementation, and the establishment of well-defined playbooks and processes. By demonstrating the benefits of autonomy and allowing employees to focus on higher-value tasks, organizations can build trust and alleviate concerns. Automation was seen as the foundation for autonomy, with the speakers acknowledging its role in streamlining processes and reducing manual, repetitive tasks. Automation frees up valuable time for employees to concentrate on innovation and delivering next-generation solutions.

The discussions also touched on the challenges of deploying autonomous solutions and the importance of vigilance and metrics-based monitoring to ensure reliable performance. Strategic alignment with organizational goals and managing expectations were highlighted as crucial factors in successful autonomy implementation.

Overall, the conversations emphasized the need for a balanced approach that combines practicality and innovation. By gradually integrating autonomy, organizations can achieve operational efficiency, deliver exceptional customer experiences, and position themselves for sustainable growth in the evolving digital landscape.

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