Something light for your Friday…
One thing I’ve never found overly satisfying in my IT work experience is my workstation. Keyboard jockeys who command large numbers of IT systems to do their bidding should have interfaces with excellent tactile feel and important information accessible at a glance. Reality? We get the keyboard we’re given, and we get two low-quality flat panels, if we’re lucky. It’s a bummer, but it is what it is.
And what about what’s displayed on the screens themselves? Oof. Network management GUIs have a funny way of never actually telling you what you need to know, even though there’s a lot of pretty graphs and colored icons on the screen.
So let’s take a flight of fancy inspired by Hollywood and see what we can come up with as improvements.
2001: A Space Odyssey
Groundbreaking in its time, 2001 gave us HAL. HAL interfaced with you as much as you interface with him. With “him,” I say? Why yes. HAL was programmed to act independently for the fulfillment of the mission, even if that meant that taking out the humans that were getting in the way. HAL watched over the ship through a ubiquitous red eye that saw all. HAL could even read lips.
To interface with HAL, the humans would speak to HAL as if he was just another member of the crew. HAL could interpret vocal inflections and subtle human nuances to accurately interpret what was actually intended. There were various terminals in the ship, and below we can see one workstation where we have screens. Lots and lots of screens. Screens in front, and screens down below, at keyboard level.
So what can we learn from HAL? For one thing, voice recognition has a long way to go. I can’t ask my OS to show me a graph of all 10GbE interfaces throwing errors in all data centers over the last hour, let’s say. I have to manually interface with a piece of clicky software for that. So, when I’m troubleshooting an issue, I can’t always flow effectively. The information comes as quickly as I can type (which is pretty fast), but there’s still a lag in between what my brain needs to know, and how fast I can get the information. HAL could tell me. (Unless he thought it best to lie, of course.)
Another element in the HAL interface is that of multiple screens. We’re not talking two screens. We’re talking at least 8, plus some more flanking the input device on the work surface. With 8 screens, you can devote individual screens to displaying critical pieces of information. This is what a NOC often does with their video walls. Why limit that sort of tech to a NOC video wall? I could fill 6 screens easily to keep real time tabs on the environments I’m responsible for, and probably more. With the cost of 1920x1080p flat panels continuing to drop, this sort of “luxury” becomes more attainable. Stand options are cheap and plentiful at monoprice.com. Sure, you need to be able to drive all of those screens with a decent workstation, but building a serious workstation with a lot of pixels available for you to set up the sort of monitoring you want is not out of the reach of mere mortals.
Our hero the hacker in “Swordfish” was presented with a super workstation that he could use to do nefarious hacker-y things. What’s most interesting to me about this setup isn’t the monitors. Yes, there’s a lot of them, and I do dig a lot of monitors. But in this shot, the monitors are not angled for optimal viewing, they are at varying depths, and they’re spaced out in a somewhat random way that’s good for Hollywood screenshots, but bad for the neck. Oh…and the bezels are beige. Eww. What caught my eye here is the lighting.
Ah, lighting. Workstation lighting in offices is usually all wrong. Bright white, unnatural florescent fixtures fill the air with a glaring, overly bright intensity that washes out monitors and makes one feel like a specimen in a horrible experiment. Probably involving cheese. I like lighting that’s OFF of my monitors, but that does light work surfaces directly. The Swordfish workstation takes a stab at this, with a series of small spot lights that hit specific parts of the workstation, while allows the monitors to shine independently. I like that idea.
In America at least, the Syfy channel briefly ran the show “Caprica”, which was the prequel to Battlestar Galactica. I’m not sure what global markets the show was exported to, but for me, Caprica was brilliant. I loved the show. I thought the story line was clever, the acting good, the characters interesting, and the social-political climate they created engrossing. When I watched Caprica, it was a total suspension of reality for me.
One of the main features of the show was the holoband, pictured above. The holoband was a fictional device that plugged you into v-world, a virtual reality environment that pulled you completely in. Like jacking into the “matrix” or visiting Star Trek’s holodeck, v-world allowed you interact with something that wasn’t really there, using the holoband as an interface that plugged into your brain directly.
Total fiction? Sure. But I can think of no better way to interact with my network than in a virtual reality construct. Imagine being able to “see” packets getting tail dropped on a congested interface, and being able to build a new queue to handle them. Or building a new parallel interface to give the congestion point another place to route. With the advent of SDN, is such an interface inconceivable? Hardly. We just have to work on that whole “fiber to the brain stem” thing.
Ah, DRADIS. On the bridge of the Galactica, or on the pilot’s console of smaller vessels, DRADIS displayed what was going on in three dimensions around the ship. The display was a combination of friendlies, threats and unknowns, updated on a regular interval.
Now take this concept, and port it to a network security monitor, say as a graphical way to display the threats detected by an IDS. With a 3D scanner, you have a way to visualize threats, and like DRADIS, provide specific details about the threat as events are unfolding. Threat detected? Display the type of threat and the source. Position the threat closer or further away depending on its potency. Offer mitigation options on the interface. Too much like a video game? I don’t think so. Looking at a grid of logfiles has the distinct disadvantage of contextless information overload. A well-designed 3D interface has the chance to overcome that in an intuitive way, giving you the chance to see what’s really important.
Something Cool You Can Actually Buy
You can buy one of these workstations today. If you click on the image, you’ll see a gallery that gives you various pics of this workstation in action. Yes, the Emperor 1510 by MWE Lab is expensive – and it doesn’t fix any of the GUI interface challenges I mentioned – but it’s at least getting the ergonomics right. Keyboard in the right spot. Monitors at eye level and an appropriate distance away. Adjustable chair. Integrated lighting. If I can’t have my intuitive 3D GUI interfaces, I could at least have the most comfortable place ever in which to command the CLI.
Yeah. For now, that’d work.