Automating Anything (on Windows), Anywhere

Automation in IT will always be a big deal because there's always going to be that situation where you have to do something obnoxiously repetitive such as grab data from that Web page, save it into this file, load that file into this application, format the data this way and e-mail it out to a list of people and do that entire process every hour during the day but not on weekends.

There's another benefit to automation that is often overlooked: accuracy. Take the above scenario: It would be pretty much guaranteed that a person trying to do that eight times per day, five days per week, 50 weeks per year would make mistakes. And that's the thing; mistakes cost money so automation not only reduces or eliminates manpower costs, it saves the cost of ****ups.

Which brings me (rather neatly I think) to today's topic: Automation Anywhere Server from Tethys Solutions, an excellent product for automating just about anything under Windows (Windows XP, Vista, 2008, 2003 and 2000 are supported) on your network.

With the ability to create tasks that perform pretty much any automation process you can think of that involves Web browsers and applications on Windows, the ability to optionally generate a distributable Windows executable to run the task, a centralized server component, clients that can work either connected and unconnected to the server, system-wide activity logging, and built-in return on investment (ROI) tracking, Automation Anywhere Server is very much a full-fledged, enterprise-oriented solution to automation.

I tested Automation Anywhere Server 6.0.3 (priced at $6,000) and was very impressed. Amongst its huge feature list Automation Anywhere Server can send and receive e-mail, run tasks on schedules or launched via events or "triggers", run and track the use of VBS and JavaScript scripts, and attempt to resolve platform differences with SMART technology so that tasks execute correctly on different Windows versions and different individual PCs.

This SMART technology appears to mostly work, though a file creation operation that worked fine on Windows 2008 Server failed on Windows Vista Ultimate because of Vista's enhanced security. An additional problem that you have to work around is that in this case the failure didn't get reported (this will be addressed in a future release).

To create an automation task there's the Web Recorder, which monitors your browser's interactions with a Web site and creates a task that can be edited and run. The only situation where this recording technology doesn't work is when a Web page contains ActiveX controls. Then you have to manually add to the script specific mouse actions (e.g. "go to these coordinates in this window and click").

A future release will include detection of interactions with ActiveX controls and will automatically add the mouse actions to your task. You can also create tasks using the Object Recorder, which understands the broader range of Windows controls. This lets you create tasks that will automate any application.

An interesting feature of the task editor is the ability to record thumbnails of browser and application screens when a task is run, which provides a visual record that makes modifying a task weeks or months later somewhat easier.

There's also a Workflow Editor for the construction of sequences of tasks with conditional logic and a Report Designer so that you can track the creation of tasks as well as task and workflow runs.

I mentioned AAS's ROI tracking. This feature keeps track of a range of factors including task development and debug time, documentation time, training, and the execution times of tasks allowing AAS to report on what the tasks would have cost if humans had done them – a neat feature when it comes to justifying investment.

There are a few aspects of Automation Anywhere Server that could do with enhancement. For example, a more granular user rights system would be useful as would expanded. What Automation Anywhere Server excels at is the breadth and depth of its features along with excellent support. I'll give Tethys' Automation Anywhere a rating of 4.5 out of 5.

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