German software company Arago builds software that can learn to perform jobs traditionally carried out by IT administrators, and investment firm KKR just acquired a stake in the company for about $55 million, according to the Wall Street Journal. KKR wants to help Arago build its businesses globally, starting with KKR’s portfolio of about 90 equity investments and their billions in annual IT spending.
Arago’s flagship product, called AutoPilot, connects to systems management software from vendors such as IBM or HP, even open source tools such as Chef and Puppet, and essentially handles the busy work that IT staff often use those tools to perform. Stuff like software testing, support questions and ensuring data integrity, said the company’s founder and CEO, Chris Boos. One customer even uses it to monitor the status of its equipment and automatically order new parts to replace failed ones.
Essentially, Boos explained, the software can automate any process that involves someone typing or clicking. “It’s like a junior admin,” he said. “It sits next to you, you do your work, and every now and then it will ask how you did that.”
Rather than learning a strict set of if-this-then-that rules about what steps to take, though, Boos said AutoPilot’s algorithms are able to learn thousands of rules and rank them accordingly based on the context at any given time, just like humans do. It’s able to work with ambiguous or even contradictory rules, too, and learns as it goes which ones work best.
Boos gives the example of teaching AutoPilot to solve a maze. If the rule said “When you hit a wall, turn left or turn right,” the software would try both directions, see which one worked best at each step in the maze, and then learn from it. In a short time, it would learn the fastest way through the maze and be able to do it in a breeze. If a new wall appeared later on, AutoPilot would recognize it and relearn the new best path.
Arago actually uses AutoPilot to test its own software on the Amazon Web Services cloud, relying on the system to do everything from setting up Amazon EC2 instances to actually running the test. If at any point in the workflow something doesn’t work as planned, AutoPilot assesses what went wrong, where it is in the process and what’s the best way to fix it.
The company also complements AutoPilot with a product called GraphIT, which is a copy of the same graph database of rules, systems and connections that AutoPilot generates to feed its algorithms knowledge. Think about it like if instead of just dumping a bunch of personal data onto users who request it, companies such as Google or Facebook actually gave users the data in the format in which the companies store it in order to make decisions about ad serving or friend suggestions. Already some Arago customers are using that data to build their own custom applications, Boos said.
It’s not the sexiest enterprise software in the world, but Boos thinks Arago is solving a very big, and very expensive issue — namely that companies are wasting a lot of time, talent and money just keeping the IT lights on. He makes the same argument that cloud computing providers found themselves making several years ago, and pretty much every company ever selling automation has ever made: AutoPilot might change some job descriptions and even cost some jobs, but that needn’t be entirely bad. Smart companies will reinvest the money they save on IT administration in revenue generation, or putting their old IT staff to work on more challenging problems.
“IT has changed everyone else’s lives, but not IT teams’ lives,” Boos said. “… We still very much talk like the guys in the lab coats in the ‘70s.”