Artistic Background

Indiana University Deploys AutoMate Software

Indiana University Indiana University
Aaron Sudduth, IT Manager

Background

The Auxiliary IT Operation center at the Indiana University has a lot of responsibility on its plate. It is in charge of the majority of for-profit activities the university is engaged in, namely the halls of residence, parking, dining facilities, campus transportation and much more. Additionally, this unit supports many critical IT processes including the secure distribution of student photos for identification cards.

Auxiliary IT is responsible for approximately 60 Windows servers, and roughly a thousand desktop machines. The servers host many databases, mainly Microsoft SQL Server but a handful of Oracle, that contain sensitive student and financial information. Two server administrators manage and maintain the servers, and roughly 15 other employees including DBA's, developers, and managers comprise the rest of the department.

The Challenge

Managing and supporting the wide range of users and constituencies requires continuous sharing of data, files, and information. In the past, if a database owner needed information from another database, he could simply write a script, batch file, or data transformation package to move or copy the information from one server to another. However, the ad-hoc data transfers were extremely problematic. For starters, this was a major security issue, as most of the data and files consisted of sensitive student and financial information. Managers and administrators worried that information could be misused, or worse, fall into the wrong hands. Moreover, when a system problem arose as a result of a data transfer, there was virtually no way for the server administrators to diagnose the cause and implement corrective action, because there was no audit trail or centralized oversight of the transfers. While the open policy for data access made it easy for database owners to share and access information, it was a management nightmare that clearly needed to be changed.

Another issue Auxiliary IT had to confront was disaster recovery. The department had to develop a centralized and manageable process to ensure all the sensitive data was backed up on a regular basis.

The Solution

Aaron Sudduth, an IT Manager with Auxiliary IT, was tasked with developing solutions to these challenges and to improve the overall management and control of the information in the department's purview. Some of the most important changes Aaron made were procedural in nature, not sweeping software solutions. For example, database owners were no longer permitted to access data from other sources directly. Instead, they had to request that Aaron and his team coordinate and conduct the data transfers. However, this policy change resulted in a flood of data transfer requests to Aaron and his team. The only way they could accommodate these requests and provide users with the data they needed was to implement an automated solution.

Fortunately, a colleague introduced Aaron to the power of AutoMate software, and Aaron soon realized that he could automate a range of critical processes with the tool. Aaron and his team quickly established a set of automation tasks that database owners could utilize to access data from other sources. With these tasks, Aaron accomplished several goals. First, he was able to implement processes that enhanced secure access to the sensitive data. Second, he provided users with a straightforward, easy process to access needed data. And third, he added a new level of transparency that enables his team to diagnose and rectify any problems that might arise. As Aaron says, "AutoMate is so flexible and powerful we keep finding more and more scenarios where AutoMate is the solution."

Once Aaron solved the most pressing security, data access, and management issues, he turned his attention to other issues he knew AutoMate could help him solve. One of these was implementing procedures to enable recovery of data in the event of a disaster. Now, critical database logs are replicated and securely transferred to offsite servers every two hours for backup and disaster recovery. Aaron even has a task that notifies him and his staff in the event a backup transfer does not occur so they can diagnose and fix an issue before it becomes a real problem.

Aaron also implemented a process that distributes new student pictures to applications supporting operations such as student housing. Application users need the photos to verify the application, but the picture files reside on the university's central UNIX system. Now, a task runs daily to check for new photos and a text file with student ID numbers and contact information. The task then copies newly added photos to the appropriate sources, and updates databases with the student information as well as pointers to the photos.

The Benefits

As a result of the procedural changes the Auxiliary IT department has made, security has increased, risks have been diminished, and management is more transparent. Users, too, have benefitted as they now receive fresher data and more timely updates. Automate has also helped the staff to focus on the more important aspects of their jobs, rather than continually fighting the last fire and performing mundane, repetitive activities.

Additionally, as Aaron points out, "Not only is AutoMate great at updating and backing up files and systems, but it is also great at providing notice and context about potential system problems. For example, we have implemented an AutoMate task that accesses a file with updates to the system-wide maintenance schedule which provides the scheduled down time, the servers affected, and other information. AutoMate takes this file, and then updates the app_offline.htm file on the appropriate server. Now, when a user tries to access a server when it is down, he gets a very useful and informative message explaining why the system is down instead of a vague error. This makes users more confident in the system and reduces the number of support calls we receive from users confused about system status."

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