Nov 13, 2014
There is no shortage of potentially useful business technology. What is in short supply is the time and budget needed to implement it. With that in mind, here are a few things to look for or do yourself that should make the process easier and cheaper. What we are seeking here is the equivalent of the plug that just slides in, then latches securely into place: in other words, low insertion force technology.
1. Get the user interface right – Too many IT tools look like they were designed by an expert for their own personal use, and deploying them means you either need to take a course or read all the documentation. So fixing that is the first thing a supplier needs to do in order to reduce the insertion force.
That does not just mean layering on a pretty graphical user interface (GUI), of course – a hog wearing lipstick is still a hog. It requires solid human interface design work that strikes the right balance between the casual user and the expert. The expert should still be able to work within the GUI without being pushed to a command-line interface, for example, but at the same time those expert options should not be obvious to the novice who might accidentally misuse them.
2. Identify the real pain-points and fix them – Beta testing and user interviews can only take us so far – people forget to report things, or think they are too minor to mention. So forward-thinking companies find other ways to gather the data they need. For example, when Silver Peak launched a free version of its VX WAN accelerator with community support, it saw particular questions come up in the support forum again and again. They may have been relatively trivial, but they were slowing down implementation and they needed fixing.
If you run into the same snarls and hold-ups time after time, that’s a sign of a company that is probably not paying enough attention to the free customer feedback that it is already getting via its tech support forums and hotlines. If they’re missing that, what else are they missing?
3. Don’t take away what users had before – This can be a tough one for vendors. I was recently introduced to a new version of a German-designed smart thermostat called Tado° – a rival to the likes of Nest. The most visible difference between this new Tado° and its predecessor is that the new one displays the current temperature and has buttons to adjust it, where previously there was a utilitarian blank panel.
What its designers had learnt was that while their early adopters were happy to open the Tado° app on their smartphones and look up the temperature – the device is designed to work with a location-enabled phone, turning the heat down automatically when you’re out, and back up again as you travel home – mainstream buyers were not. That was partly because they missed having the functionality that their previous non-smart thermostats had, and partly because if you’re in the same room, glancing at an adjacent device is so much quicker than hauling out your phone (as smartwatch wearers will no doubt rediscover).
Before long though they will start using it the way its designers intended, just as hardly anyone now uses the volume buttons on a TV. The downside is that this is also the reason why much office and data centre technology is loaded down with features that hardly anyone uses now, but which are needed to meet the expectations of some purchasing department ticksheet.
4. Give them something to see and touch – I mention the thermostat story because it came up in an entertaining conversation I had with Everett Dolgner, Silver Peak’s Director, Replication Product Management, at the recent IPexpo show in London. The other thing it reminded us of is how many people still prefer physical boxes for certain tasks – as humans, we like to be able to see and touch things.
This is going to be an increasing problem as we move so much of our IT to the cloud. As Everett put it, people like to touch hardware, and always look for what they got from the previous generation, even though it is no longer relevant. So how long will it take before you can dump that baggage and move on? A smart buyer will dump it sooner rather than later.
5. Keep up with architectural changes – This is a particular problem as we look to build the next-generation WAN. Just as people moved from point-to-point links to cheaper MPLS connections, they are now starting to move from MPLS to the Internet, because the public Internet is now good enough for the majority of applications – and when the wide-area infrastructure moves to the cloud, where you are going changes.
Moving to Internet connectivity means each office has a local connection to the Internet by default. However, your company may still backhaul Internet traffic to HQ, whether for security, auditing, consolidation or some other once-solid but now largely-legacy reason. When your line of business apps are now on the Web – for example, Office365 or Google Apps – this is a problem, because it means added latency, and latency is the killer when it comes to Web apps because it makes the app look slow to the user.
This, incidentally, is part of what Silver Peak is aiming to do with Unity, its next-generation software-defined WAN technology. This includes logic that knows where the Internet resources you use actually are – it looks at the applications, not the IP addresses – so it can calculate where is the best place to break out of your private network for the lowest latency to a particular service.
The one other aspect you may want to watch out for as your organization moves its WAN to the cloud is network neutrality. So far this has been mostly a consumer worry, but if businesses all move to the Internet too, where do the telco revenues come from? Could they start discriminating against certain traffic types, or charging extra for low-latency access to popular applications and sites? This is perhaps a more distant risk though, not least because telcos usually charge more for business-grade Internet connections anyway.