Network Management: In Search of a Few Good GUIs

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Network Management: In Search of a Few Good GUIs

Most of the time, interacting with electronic devices is as simple as point and click. In many instances, you don’t even have to think very hard about where to point, thanks to the richly intuitive tools that have evolved out of decades of research and development in interface design.

That’s why most of today’s computer users have never seen a command-line interface. And why making a phone call can be as easy as tapping a contact’s picture — or even just saying a name. Even cars will soon get an interface makeover if Google has its way. Soon, driving your car could be as simple as telling a GPS where you want to go.

The so-called consumerization of IT has swept through nearly every facet of tech — except in one overlooked corner. For some reason, tedious CLI-based workflows remain the norm in networking.

Traditionally, point-and-click interfaces for network management have been few and far between. Wizards designed to take the guesswork out of configuring and monitoring network infrastructure have proven as elusive as people using UUCP to read email.

The good news is that things are changing for the better. While networking is inherently complex, managing your network no longer has to be, thanks to wizards and graphical user interfaces (GUIs) that make handling that complexity much simpler.

A failure to manage complexity

Occasionally, there are situations where having the ability to do things the complicated, less-than-painless way makes sense. But the vast majority of tasks that admins face on a day-to-day basis are not those types of situations.

Don’t get us wrong. We’re not anti-CLI fanatics. Nor do we advocate the dumbing down of configuration interfaces in a way that would give admins less control. Complexity is not an inherently bad thing.

What’s bad is failure to manage complexity effectively.

In this, the networking world has a particularly poor performance record. Let’s illustrate with an example. Suppose you want to make sure that whenever someone in your office makes a VoIP call they can’t tell the difference between it and a POTS phone. To do that, you need to enable Quality of Service (QoS). So far, so good.

But there are different ways to approach and implement QoS in an IP network. You can use Class of Service, shapers, or special VLANs, to name just three options. Mix in a variety of different vendors and devices, and now you have to figure out which configuration will work best between them. Or work at all.

Something ostensibly simple — make sure your VoIP phones work well— has become a very complicated task. There are specialists with expertise and experience dedicated to enabling just this application.

Why we have what we have in networking land

So, how did we get here? Why don’t network admins make wider use of wizards for networking? It’s certainly not because they don’t want them. On the contrary, as network engineer Russ White notes, admins are already discussing how GUIs and wizards could help many companies run their networks more effectively.

Instead, part of the reason network management remains so tough is that the vendors who produce the tools don’t have a good incentive to make things easier.

network management CLI

The CLI: Unchanged for decades

After all, vendors make money by selling support services and certifications that help you learn to work with complex interfaces. If more GUIs and wizards existed to make configuration less complicated, this revenue stream would dry up for them.

But even if Cisco, Juniper, and the rest of the gang didn’t have profitable support and certification programs, they’d have little reason to cooperate among themselves to the extent necessary to make their configuration interfaces and languages easier for everyone to use.

That’s because the vendors don’t gain a competitive edge by making configuration and management simpler. Customers make purchasing decisions based on hardware features, not the software tools that vendors ship with them.

That said, we can’t chalk up all our problems to what vendors have done or not done. Some of the responsibility lies with us as well. As network admins, we’ve accepted poor interfaces and tools for so long that these deficiencies have become, as Plexxi put it last year, a “new normal.”

Perhaps the most insidious effect of poor conditions is that prolonged exposure can actually cause us to reset our baseline for normal. When we are subjected to extended periods of great or even long periods of suck, we adjust our expectations.

In networking, this means that our current normal has been forged through diligent neglect of actual user experience for decades.

Not everything in networking interface design has been driven by vendor neglect or admin apathy, however. The drive to build and use tools that are as powerful as they can be — even if that comes at the cost of usability — has been an important factor.

Still, however you slice it, the result is the same. Network admins find themselves in what Plexxi calls “IT’s third world,” lacking the refined, user-friendly interfaces and management tools our peers in so many other niches — even ones where having a great deal of power over configuration is of utmost importance — now take for granted.

So, how do we fix it?

Enough about what’s wrong. The real question is: How do we fix it?

That’s a terrifically tough query. So tough that even seasoned network pros like Ivan Pepelnjak have concluded that because “most networking vendors quickly get infected by featuritis and corner cases,” it’s unlikely a real solution will ever emerge — short of a “Steve Jobs of networking” descending from the heavens to set the industry straight.

White is equally skeptical about the willingness or ability of vendors to solve the problem. But he’s a bit more optimistic than Pepelnjak in that he believes the networking industry could take a cue from the world of PC computers. There, hardware and software have long had separate producers (except, perhaps, in the Apple universe). As a result, software vendors have had a strong incentive to prioritize usability because it’s a way to gain competitive advantage.

For White, achieving a similar outcome in the networking industry would mean getting vendors to collaborate on creating a universal set of APIs. Software developers could then use the APIs to produce hardware-agnostic interfaces, competing among themselves to produce the best, most intuitive, and most useful solutions — regardless of what the hardware vendors are up to.

We agree that universal APIs for networking would be a marvellous thing. Unfortunately, they’re unlikely to come to fruition because, again, the vendors have little incentive to cooperate in the way that would be necessary for that to happen.

The future is here

But that doesn’t mean all hope is lost. Far from it. Auvik is already delivering a network management system that, in a user-friendly way, automates the tedium and fickleness that have traditionally been a major part of network administration.

network management gui wizard auvik interface

Auvik’s graphical user interface

In our next phases of development, you’ll able to tell Auvik, in plain English, what you want (configure guest Wi-Fi or set up VoIP phones in branch 3 office), and the software will show you the configuration changes needed to make it happen. Click another button and those changes will be implemented for you. Networking can and should be that easy.

That said, we meant it when we wrote that we’re not anti-CLI. Within the Auvik interface, it’s still possible to access, configure, and manage devices through a CLI terminal if you want. So you still have all the control that comes with the CLI, but you also have a much simpler option for the frequent situations where those interfaces are overkill.

Changing the network culture

We believe Auvik isn’t just building another set of network tools. Instead, we’re changing the network culture, helping to move IT admins out of the “third world” of IT management and into the first.

We see a future where other efforts combine with ours to make network management as easy and intuitive as it should be, where configuration without GUIs and wizards seems as outmoded to network admins as telegraphs and teletype do to us today.

As a network administrator, you face huge demands on your time, and if your experience is typical, you’re continually being asked to do more with less. Simply put, you’ve got better ways to spend your day than wading through arcane configuration interfaces to accomplish basic tasks when a good wizard can do it for you.

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Alex Hoff

About Alex Hoff

Alex Hoff, Vice President of Product Management, Auvik Networks Inc. Alex's prior experience includes serving as Senior Product Manager and member of the office of the Chief Technology Officer at Sandvine where he built the company's Usage Management product line.

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