As an IT professional, whether providing managed services or supporting a mid-sized enterprise, you’re faced with a growing array of technologies to manage. Virtualization and cloud computing are accelerating the proliferation of servers and business applications. Plus there’s an ever increasing number of mobile devices, including laptops, tablets, and smart phones. Attaining deep expertise in the management of every product that comes along is impractical and costly.
To meet this challenge, think in terms of “management by exception” and employ tools that simplify the IT management experience. The result will be a far more effective and productive IT staff.
“Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.”
Many IT management tools possess rich user interfaces that are intended to empower the user. Often these UIs evolve over many years, adding features to address various new use cases.
Unfortunately, such UIs complicate the user’s life by requiring decisions rooted in a deep understanding of the management tool. It’s like handing your car keys to someone who’s never driven before. How do I start the car? How do I put it into gear? What’s that third pedal? A complex UI means time spent getting trained, opportunities for mistakes, and difficulty adjusting to newly introduced capabilities. A simplified UI eliminates these inefficiencies by automating decision making and actually reducing choices.
Having been involved with data protection and business continuity for the past few years, I’ve seen how backup and disaster recovery tools have become more sophisticated, but also more complicated. For example, what seems like the simple task of configuring a backup entails a number of decisions about schedule, frequency, retention, validation, and a variety of other options. Ultimately, these tools must evolve to offering a simpler user experience or risk losing adoption, except perhaps by the most entrenched users.
“I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”
– Mark Twain
IT tools often provide lots of statistics and summary reports, but not the insights necessary to make decisions and take actions. Are all systems healthy? Is a trend emerging that will cause a crisis down the road? Did something go out of band that now requires immediate attention? The abundance of data without specific insights is like a person who rambles on and on without getting straight to the point.
To illustrate using a specific example, consider a backup tool with its schedules, completion logs, and summary reports. The user must spend time analyzing this data to draw inferences about whether critical systems are adequately protected. A more efficient approach would be if the tool came straight to the point and reported whether systems are protected based on relevant criteria. For instance, you may have a server with a business requirement to be backed up once per day, for which an hourly backup is configured. Occasionally an hourly backup may fail. Rather than gleaning from completion reports or a series of notifications, the tool should simply tell you the server is protected.
“A child of five could understand this. Send someone to fetch a child of five.”
– Groucho Marx
A simplified user experience should tell you what you need to know, at the time you need to know it, and in a manner that works best for you. This gets to the heart of management by exception. Manually reviewing dashboards for failures and then deciphering arcane error messages is incredibly inefficient. It’s much better for an IT tool to provide relevant details with specific suggestions for remediation. This can be through the tool’s own UI, updates propagated to a centralized management system, or standard communications like email and text messages.
Using the previous backup example, a critical system falling out of protection might open a trouble ticket with high priority, an explanation of what went wrong, and a recommendation for corrective action. For less critical systems, a daily digest of protection status sent via email may be all that’s required.
The best way to effectively mange increasingly complex IT environments is to employ management tools that simplify your life. Seek out tools that offer expert guidance rather than a smorgasbord of choices, provide timely and relevant information as opposed to reams of data, and are compatible with the way you and your staff work. Even if you’re mostly satisfied with your current tools, think in terms of management by exception and how your tools might evolve to improve your productivity. Then share those thoughts with your tool vendors. As a product manager, I find such input invaluable for guiding product direction.
Todd Scallan, VP Products for Axcient and hobbyist winemaker, enjoys complexity in his wine – but not in his products.