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 are getting an interface makeover.
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 customers’ networks 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 me wrong. I’m not an anti-CLI fanatic. Nor do I 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.
“Complexity is not an inherently bad thing. What’s bad is failure to manage complexity effectively.” @SmarterMSP @AuvikNetworks
In this, the networking world has a particularly poor performance record. Let me 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, 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 that produce the tools don’t have a good incentive to make things easier.
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 a new normal.
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 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?
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.
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.
I 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.
I 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 managed service provider, 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 network management system can do it for you.