System Center Cortana: Automation, the future, and Virtual Systems Administrators

“Cortana, can you perform a check of all the client computers in the head office site to see if they’ve deployed all of the critical security updates that were released last month?”

“Cortana, can you provide me with a vocal advisory if there is an issue that causes a DAG failover in the on-prem Exchange deployment?”

“Cortana, can you build me a Orchestrator runbook that checks whether the VMM service has failed, and configure it to automatically restart? Can you give me a yell if this happens 3 times over a 2 hour period?”

 “Cortana, can you spin up three VMs running Windows Server 2014 R2, make the first a domain controller for the contoso.internal domain, name the second and third ones SVR1 and SVR2, join them to the domain and deploy SQL Server on them with reporting services?”

If you’ve played around with the System Center suite and PowerShell, you’ve already got a fair idea how to build automation that can go and perform the majority of these tasks for you (we aren’t at the stage where we’d get the vocal alert . . . yet).

We’re always hearing that job security in IT is being the person that builds the automation and not being the person whose job just got automated away. In the short term, that means diving deep with technologies such as PowerShell, Orchestrator, and Service Management Automation. Get in deep with these products and you can build the automation that reduces the amount of time you use performing repetitive tasks. It’s the old saying—every minute you spend building automation is hours you save not doing the same repetitive tasks.

However, if you’re thinking a bit further out—beyond the next 5 years—and you’ve been playing around with tools like Cortana, you’ll realize that it’s not too much of a leap to see something like the Cortana that looks after your phone as a personal software assistant eventually morph into something like Cortana, the Virtual Assistant Systems Administrator. Ask yourself this: “Is there any reason that in the future, software, given appropriate parameters, won't be able to build complex automation?”

The recent book by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, “The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies”  talks about some of the issues that the workforce will be facing as the capabilities of virtual assistants like Cortana grow. It’s not just robots building cars, but increasingly complex software performing what were once regarded as typical middle class jobs. Overall, the book is positive when talking about a future where many tasks are performed by intelligent automation, predicting that people will find employment doing things that software can’t. However, the authors also admit that the short term consequences to employment in many sectors of the economy may be a bit catastrophic.

If you’re working in IT, you need to be keeping an eye on not just what might be coming in a few years, but what might be coming in the next decade. Books like The Second Machine Age, the author’s previous “Race Against The Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy”  and Martin Ford’s “The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future”  all suggest trends where we won’t just be automating away repetitive tasks, but getting virtual assistant systems administrators to automate away those repetitive tasks for us. This isn’t William Gibson or Neal Stephenson Cyberpunk science fiction, but a reasonable set of guesses about what things might look like a decade from now.

If you’re prepared for that future, you’ll find that there will still be a place for human server administrators even when a fair degree of automation can be built by a virtual assistant systems administrator. One can envisage training software to build automation, but unless there’s a gigantic leap, systems administrators are still going to be required to perform the inductive, deductive and creative reasoning that is required to determine which solution to a problem should be pursued or which IT strategy should be adopted by the organization going forward.

Part of the job will also involve understanding exactly what a virtual assistant server administrator can do, and when you’ll need to “get out and push” (fire up Orchestrator, PowerShell and so on to build the automation yourself because the virtual systems administrator isn’t smart or imaginative enough to solve that problem on its own). As you’ll know if you play with Cortana or Siri, sometimes you need a human brain to understand that the answer the computer has come up with is completely off-base.

Ultimately someone will still need to be able to describe what the automation to solve the problem needs to do before a virtual assistant server administrator can go off and build that automation.

 

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IT pro Orin Thomas provides true tales, snafus, news, and urban legends for Microsoft Windows system administrators.

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Orin Thomas

Orin Thomas is a contributing editor for Windows IT Pro and a Windows Security MVP. He has authored or coauthored more than thirty books for Microsoft Press, founded the Melbourne System Center,...
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