Network management takes interface tips from gaming industry, Google

Simplified user interfaces are helping harried networking professionals stay on top of ever-more complex networks.

Some management tool vendors are finding inspiration in unlikely places -- from Google to the gaming industry -- in their quest to simplify network management.

With voice, data and video flowing over one network, IT professionals need the ability to quickly drill down to the dirty details. In response, vendors have begun offering tools with front-end interfaces more like video games or Web 2.0 sites than traditional network management tools.

"The trend is to present the information to the users in a format that's actually usable," said Zeus Kerravala, senior vice president of enterprise research at Yankee Group. "Traditional management tools show you lots of information, but the network manager needs to figure out what it means."

While the Big Four -- BMC, CA, HP and IBM -- have been slow to respond with improvements in their management lines, a number of smaller players have been quick to fill the void, and network administrators are thankful for it.

"I've used CiscoWorks in the past. I'm sure a lot of people are happy with them, but I've found they're too labor intensive," said Scott McEwen, network administrator for the 17th Circuit Court of Florida. "You spend a lot more time fighting with the software."

About two years ago, McEwen switched over to SolarWinds' Orion NetFlow Traffic Analyzer, which he said was more intuitive than CiscoWorks, from the initial installation to ongoing operations.

Part of SolarWinds' appeal, according to McEwen, is the ability to represent NetFlow data easily and graphically, making it a useful tool for explaining the situation on the ground to upper management and also for analyzing long-term trends. "It helps me understand it as well," he said. "It gives you an understanding of the total cost of what's going on."

Getting IT pros accustomed to the tool without a huge learning curve is a big selling point for third parties trying to enter the management field.

"If you don't have a tool that [networking professionals] can use quickly, they're going to move on to something else," said Sal Sferlazza, CTO of PacketTrap, a SMB-centric network management vendor that is hoping to stand out with a Google-inspired user interface (UI).

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Sferlazza, who formally served as the COO of game developer Realm Interactive, was brought on board the fledgling network management company to make sure its product was easy to dive into but thorough enough to get the job done, a balancing act vendors are increasingly focused on.

The leap from game development to network management wasn't as far as one might think, according to Sferlazza. Whether you're blasting spaceships or patching Cisco routers, accessibility is critical. That means reducing scrolling, utilizing the drop-down menus people are used to, and -- perhaps most important -- ditching the need for training on yet another networking utility.

"The functionality the IT guy understands, no problem; but seeing where it fits and how to use it … is important," Sferlazza said.

PacketTrap, which formally launched its Google-reminiscent platform last January, isn't the only company looking to woo customers by being more user friendly. NetScout, NetQoS, AdRem and Plixer, to name a few, have all made efforts to beautify their interfaces and make it easier for admins to click their way from crisis to control.

SolarWinds, which has built up a customer base of 50,000 users in its 10-year history, has tapped into its online community, Thwack.com, to help guide development.

Kenny Van Zant, chief product strategist at SolarWinds, said the company absolutely believes simplicity is key -- with an important caveat.

"You don't have to go all the way to hanging with the 'rounded corner gang' to be really simple," Van Zant said. But he recognizes that the generation that grew up with Unix is moving on. "People today have never seen anything but a simple UI. If you make it overly complicated, it becomes unusable."

SolarWinds lets an administrator overlay his global network's status on top of a global map, with green, yellow and red icons to indicate whether a hub is good to go or going down in flames.

"We believe really strongly that network management isn't complicated," Van Zant said. "[And] it shouldn't be complicated for the sake of being complicated."

Of course, "not complicated" doesn't always equate to "pretty graphs." There's still a distrust of pretty for the sake of pretty, and for practical reasons.

Craig Hulbert, senior network engineer at HCR ManorCare in Toledo, Ohio, uses SolarWinds' Orion and an assortment of other tools, including several from a small company called Plixer, to help stay on top of his network. He said many of the finer graphical tweaks were "smoke and mirrors" that helped simplify problem areas for upper management but were of little use on the networking front lines.

"For a network engineer, 90% of what he needs is text," Hulbert said. "He needs to know interface status .... You can't graphically show that fast."

One 2.0 concept Hulbert does endorse is the widgetization of many of these interfaces -- when management tools allow users to patch information and displays from various reports into a custom interface.

"I think that's the biggest trend I've seen in the network monitoring systems," Hulbert said. He used some of the rudimentary interfaces already on the market to hack together all the information his team needs through a BlackBerry-friendly interface which is light on curves but heavy on functionality.

It somehow manages to get the job done.

"I think a lot of these vendors have spent too much time on their GUIs for the operational side," Hulbert said. "I don't sit at my desk and use that tool; that's not my job .... My job is to run the network."

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