The good and bad of ‘zero-touch’ cloud operations

Zero-touch cloud operations is the concept of automating cloud operations (cloudops) processes to minimize the need for human intervention. Specifically, it involves automating the deployment, configuration, scaling, monitoring, and resolution of issues on all cloud platforms (public and private), and even extends to traditional legacy systems and edge computing systems as well.

Physically, it is a layer of technology running above the cloud providers (e.g., a metacloud). It can be anything that’s able to automate cloudops, for instance, AIops technology, identity management, performance management, governance, and finops. This includes detecting issues and resolving them without human participation. 

Adopting a metacloud also means less urgent operational processes, such as standard maintenance practices (including those surrounding disaster recovery). Devops toolchains also use these types of technologies for the same purposes.

Like any good technology movement, there are upsides and there are downsides to consider. Let’s look at both.

Good news

Basically, zero-touch cloudops brings a few well-understood advantages:

  • Greater efficiency. Automating routine tasks in cloudops frees up time and resources for cloud teams to focus on more strategic initiatives.
  • Less error. The majority of times that something goes wrong, a human has screwed it up. Zero touch reduces the risk of human error.
  • Faster time to deployment. Automating deployments and scaling cloud services compresses the idea-to-deployment timeframe.
  • Improved uptime. By using AI-based algorithms to predict issues before they occur (such as happens in AIops), cloud teams can proactively resolve problems and improve uptime.
  • Better collaboration. Integrating devops practices into cloudops can improve collaboration between development and operations teams, with all the obvious benefits.

Bad news

Of course, the good news needs to be balanced with the realities that few are discussing these days.

  • Lack of control. Automating routine tasks in cloud management can reduce the level of control that cloudops teams have over the environment. Many cloud architects suffer from the fear of automation but they do make some valid points.
  • Loss of cloudops skills. If we are not directly controlling cloudops most of the time, how will we learn to fix things when humans are needed? Zero-touch cloudops could result in complacency. This could lead to a disaster when true human skills are needed but no one’s done any real cloudops work for years.
  • Balancing automation with human oversight. Most companies err on one extreme or the other: Either humans are never involved or they are completely involved. The reality is that zero touch still requires oversight from humans, but a balance must be found.
  • Dependence on technology. The double-edged sword is that technology can improve efficiency and reduce risk, but it can also introduce new risks and challenges if it fails. Many teams only focus on the benefits. Some risk still exists, or net-new risk can be introduced by zero-touch cloudops.
  • It’s expensive. Implementing zero touch comes at a high price—not just the technology, but also the talent and planning to pull it off successfully. Often, I see enterprises attempt to do it on the cheap and make things worse. If you think the cost savings that might result will fund a zero-touch transformation project (I hear this often), you’re going to be disappointed.

Worth the time, risk, and money?

I’ve focused mostly on the downsides of zero touch here. Many other pundits and technology providers will not. I’m attempting to bring all the facts to the table for your consideration. For most enterprises, investment in zero-touch cloudops, including building a sound metacloud technology layer, will indeed bring a great deal of value back to the business.

However, success is largely domain-specific, as to what you do and what solutions you build. No canned zero-touch solutions yet exist, although many vendors are claiming theirs do in their sales collateral. It requires planning and lots of expensive smart people to come up with the right solution. I suggest you either make the investment needed or don’t bother.

Hopefully, I’ve lowered your expectations a bit but also increased your chances of success with zero touch.

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