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The Importance of User Interfaces in IT Infrastructure Management

IT is all about APIs and Automation now, but I think that sometimes we forget we are humans.

I totally understand why everybody is trying to program and automate every single part of their IT and last week, at Tech Field Day 20 we attended a few sessions that were crazy cool about automation. The one that I liked the most was with Cisco about their NSO (more on this in future podcasts and articles) but, at the same time, visualization is a fundamental aspect to get a glimpse of what is really happening in your infrastructure. Doing data visualization right is really hard, and not getting the right information when needed can seriously compromise the efficiency of several processes, including day-to-day system administration and troubleshooting.

Wasting time to understand what is happening in the system slows down reactions and can easily compromise the total time necessary to remediate to issues or, even worse, SLAs.

Different perspectives

When it comes to IT infrastructures and we think about graphical user interfaces, there are a couple of aspects to consider:

  • Day-0 operations UI (Wizards): When you deploy a new infrastructure through a UI, it is highly likely that you need to follow a step-by-step process to ensure that all the components are deployed in an orderly manner and that they are properly configured to provide the necessary services and support to those that follow. UI wizards can be of great help in this context, helping to simplify the entire process. This could seem trivial, but simplification helps to avoid mistakes and can speed up the entire process. An interesting video about what I’m saying here can be found here:

  • Day-to-Day operations: Once the infrastructure is deployed, the type of UI is totally different, especially when it comes at monitoring infrastructure status and understanding its behavior. In this case it is no longer about wizards, but it is all about dashboards and smart visualization of the infrastructure layout. Getting information faster is the goal here, and to do that it is important to have customizable views and reports. Another interesting video that is quite interesting to watch on this topic can be found here:

If we look at UI from operators instead of operations, there are at least two different types of persona that could be interested in smart UI and data visualization:

  • Expert SysAdmin: This person is usually interested in getting as much information as possible to act quickly. Advanced UIs with rich dashboards, and the possibility to drill down in the infrastructure layout to discover as much as possible in a few clicks, is the goal. Simplicity is usually traded for quantity and quality of the information.
  • General practitioner: On the other side of the spectrum we have IT operators that need the simplest interfaces, with information that is easy to understand and which quickly gives an idea of what is happening. At the same time, these interfaces are usually associated with wizards and smart assistants that can help the operator to identify problems quicker and report it to the right person in the organization.

Here is another great example of a tremendously well done UI can be found here from the demo of Forescout at TD20:

Automation and UIs

A good UI is important also when system administration is heavily supported by orchestration and configuration management tools. In fact, a good UI, with a clear infrastructure layout visualization, can give feedback on the actions performed by these tools almost in real time, no matter the complexity of the infrastructure. Furthermore, if data and infrastructure visualization directly reflects infrastructure changes made by the orchestration tool, all operators can benefit from it, and there is no risk of working on stale information.

Here an example of what I’m saying from the NSO demo that CISCO presented at TFD20:

Key Takeaways

UIs are still an important component of any tool that supervises IT infrastructures. In most organizations UIs are still at the core of system administration and in others remains an important asset to simplify day-to-day operations.

No matter the size of an IT organization, good UIs and data visualization are still crucial to simplify IT operations and provide the best tools for any type of operator.

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