The Overlooked Importance of Ease of Use

Hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI) solutions have a number of advantages over traditional IT infrastructure stacks, most of which have been covered extensively on this website. One advantage that is frequently overlooked is ease of use.

Most of the posts here on hyperconverged.org deal with some easily-definable, readily-quantifiable fact of hyperconvergence. These might include a cost/benefit analysis, for example, or a brief look at how VLANs might be implemented within HCI solutions. Though difficult to define in a quantitative fashion, ease of use is an advantage that deserves to be discussed as much as any of the more easily-measured technical or economic benefits.

Perhaps the easiest way to measure ease of use is to put an HCI solution in front of an administrator and see how long it takes for them to figure it out. Does the solution require the administrator to check a manual, attend a course, or achieve a certification-level of mastery before being able to use the solution to perform most tasks?

Some of this depends on the administrator’s previous experience. Take an administrator with previous experience using VMware, and then ask them to use a VMware-based HCI solution that uses the same vSphere/vCenter interface. That administrator is likely not to need retraining. Take that same administrator and ask them to use a VMware-based HCI solution that uses or adds a new interface, and there may or may not be more training required.

Skills and training can be reasonably portable, but portability isn’t always equal. An experienced VMware administrator can almost always master Hyper-V. Many Hyper-V administrators, however, seem to have a slightly rougher time porting their skills to VMware.

The reason for this is simple: most VMware administrators also use and administrate Microsoft products, and Microsoft tends to stick to similar design conventions across their product lines. A VMware administrator will almost certainly have been exposed to Microsoft’s way of doing things, even if they haven’t been exposed to Hyper-V itself.

Hyper-V administrators, on the other hand, could have gone their whole careers without ever having been exposed to a VMware interface, or VMware’s way of doing things. That the hill seems harder to climb for Hyper-V administrators is perfectly natural, in part because VMware’s administrative interfaces aren’t particularly intuitive.

Interface Familiarity Counts

The more reliable a piece of IT infrastructure is, the less that administrators need to interact with it to solve problems. In addition, not all IT environments are constantly changing; many organizations go months or even years without adding a new VM. In these environments, ease of use is a very serious consideration.

If administrators can sometimes go months without interacting with a piece of infrastructure, what are the chances that they remember every detail of how that piece of infrastructure works? Checking a manual every time something needs to be accomplished during a crisis isn’t particularly time efficient, so ease of use matters.

Intuitive user interface design, discovery of features, and an API that follows popular conventions are all important aspects of ease of use. These are areas where HCI vendors can provide a great deal of value, though not all HCI vendors choose to add value in this fashion.

HCI vendors offering solutions based on VMware and Hyper-V face a dilemma: how much can they add, and how far afield from the default interfaces for these platforms can they take their HCI interface? HCI vendors using other hypervisors – especially KVM – have more freedom to experiment. The default user interfaces for KVM aren’t well known. They’re also not very good.

This leaves KVM-based HCI vendors with an advantage over rivals: they can experiment more freely with user interfaces. These vendors can work to create solutions that are more universally intuitive. This is particularly important where organizations are small enough – or automated enough – not to have administrators constantly interacting with the UI.

Automation

The importance of an intuitive user interface for organizations investing in IT automation is often overlooked. As organizations’ IT automation increases, the time administrators spend in UIs other than the automation/orchestration solutions’ UI decreases. Highly automated organizations face the same problem that organizations with a low rate of change do: administrators can go months without visiting a solution’s UI.

As more organizations embrace IT automation, the importance of ease of use only grows. Interfaces for all IT solutions will ultimately have to be simplified, as the existence of specialists to manage each infrastructure component can no longer be guaranteed.

Exactly what makes an interface more easy to use isn’t readily quantifiable. It can vary from person to person, and depends greatly upon the individual’s expertise. Increasingly, however, ease of use is a real-world consideration, making this somewhat subjective topic an important part of purchasing decisions: for HCI solutions, and for IT solutions everywhere else in your data center.



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Trevor Pott

Trevor Pott is a full-time nerd from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. He splits his time between systems administration, technology writing, and consulting. As a consultant he helps Silicon Valley start-ups better understand systems administrators and how to sell to them.

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