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IT System Dashboards: Are they as helpful as they should be?

Level 13

The-Hog-Ring-Auto-Upholstery-Community-Aerospace-Lancia-Beta-Trevi.jpg

We’ve all seen dashboards for given systems. A dashboard is essentially a quick view into a given system. We are seeing these more and more often in the monitoring of a given system. Your network monitoring software may present a dashboard of all switches, routers, and even down to the ports, or all the way up to all ports in given WAN connections. For a large organization, this can be a quite cumbersome view to digest in a quick dashboard. Network is a great example of fully fleshed out click-down views. Should any “Red” appear on that dashboard, a simple click into it, and then deeper and deeper into it, should help to discover the source of the problem wherever it may be.

Other dashboards are now being created, such that the useful information presented within the given environment may be not so dynamic, and harder to discern in terms of useful information.

The most important thing to understand from within a dashboard environment is that the important information should be so easily presented that the person glancing at it should not have to know exactly how to fix whatever issue is, but that that information be understood by whoever may be viewing it. If a given system is presenting an error of some sort, the viewer should have the base level of understanding necessary to understand the relevant information that is important to them.

Should that dashboard be fluid or static? The fluidity is necessary for those doing the the deep dive into the information at the time, but a static dashboard can be truly satisfactory should that individual be assigning the resolution to another, more of a managerial or administrative view.

I believe that those dashboards of true significance have the ability to present either of these perspectives. The usability should only be limited by the viewer’s needs.

I’ve seen some truly spectacular dynamic dashboard presentations. A few that spring to mind are Splunk, the analytics engine for well more than just a SIEM, Plexxi, a networking company with outstanding deep dive capabilities into their dashboard with outstanding animations, and of course, some of the wonderfully intuitive dashboards from SolarWinds. This is not to say that these are the limits of what a dashboard can present, but only a representation of many that are stellar.

The difficulty with any fluid dashboard is how difficult is it for a manager of the environment to create the functional dashboard necessary to the viewer? If my goal were to fashion a dashboard intended for the purpose of seeing for example Network or storage bottlenecks, I would want to see, at least initially, a Green/Yellow/Red gauge indicating if there were “HotSpots” or areas of concern, then, if all I needed was that, I’d, as management assign someone to look into that, but if I were administration, I’d want to be more interactive to that dashboard, and be able to dig down to see exactly where the issue existed, and/or how to fix it.

I’m a firm believer in the philosophy that a dashboard should provide useful information, but only what the viewer requires. Something with some fluidity always is preferable.

27 Comments
acmtix
Level 13

Solarwinds badly needs to upgrade Network Atlas, you cannot even draw simple shapes easily. If they do that "it could be a contender"... especially when used with Netpath.

mbleib
Level 13

My experience with SolarWinds is that they're very open to feature requests. I would submit your desires up through channels.

acmtix
Level 13

it is a common request on here and I know it has been submitted. Having said that, a lot of the preconfigured dashboards / charts/ tables are very good.

vinay.by
Level 16

Nice

byrona
Level 21

I fully expect that the next time we see SolarWinds make any significant changes to Network Atlas it will be to leverage their new Apollo WebUI that both NetPath and PerfStack use to bring Network Atlas into the WebUI.

byrona
Level 21

I think most dashboards are not particularly useful but that isn't to say they can't be.  The trick to a good dashboard is to provide important data about what is going on in a way that is simple and easy to consume.

Jfrazier
Level 18

The main thing about dashboards is they are a high level view into the status of the machine whether it is the enterprise, a specific environment, a business service, or a particular machine.  Its function is to convey that everything is running as expected, running not as preferred, there are problems, or it is down.  There should be the ability to drill down for more in depth views and data.  Remember it is usually for a quick glance to see if something is amiss.  You don't stare at your cars dashboard as you drive..you glance at specific indicators from time to time to ensure things are within expected norms.  If you get a check engine light you have to use other tools to dig in deeper.  If your oil pressure is low or your fuel level low you know to add fluids.

Fluid or static..a lot depends on your target audience.

What are they going to do with data presented ? 

Is it relative to them ?

Will they act upon it ?

mtgilmore1
Level 13

Now what button do I push!!!!!!

Image result for photo dashboards

jkump
Level 15

Having spent many hours with Industrial Engineers.  With planning and user input, dashboards can be very effective.  They need to be flexible but functional.  Think about a 1950's high school scoreboard versus the LED style of an NFL stadium.

Nice thought provoking article.!!!!!

ecklerwr1
Level 19

I've found it takes some serious work to keep your dashboards current if they are related to say your WAN nodes as they are always changing.  Maybe something dynamic with groups would be good where they could auto-populate!

designerfx
Level 16

I sure hope so, byrona​ . Atlas should be one of the core parts of solarwinds but it could use a significant update.

mcam
Level 14

We have a license for NTM which really needs some love as well.

However for TV scale dashboards I rely on the stylized big green button approach

As an 180 opposite to the space shuttle dashboard, how about.

model-3-dashboard-panel.jpg

bobmarley
Level 15

I tried to get their attention about using dynamic groups for dashboards but they don't seem to grasp the concept. Help with displaying Volume information on the Groups page in NPM

Was told by support that it wasn't going to be happening so gave up on it. Have similar stories for Network Atlas, World Maps and All Active Alerts resource, Network Discovery, etc.

It's like they finished 4 miles of a 5 mile bridge. Cool concept, but I can't actually use it in it's present state.

I see the developers now focusing on Appstack yet the basic NPM Groups function still doesn't display Disk, SAM Metrics, Interface Utilization etc.

gfsutherland
Level 14

Dashboards are tough.... Ease of understanding, effectiveness of data portraited, refresh rate and is there an effective call to action?

Wish there was one of these!!!!

Image result for staples easy button

Jfrazier
Level 18

We need a Thwack button !

gfsutherland
Level 14

Great idea.... a designer I am not!!!

ecklerwr1
Level 19

It would make sense because you could add nodes to the group and it would automatically update in the dashboard!  That's an easy button right there gsutherland@sharoncu.com

gfsutherland
Level 14

Well put!

tinmann0715
Level 16

I am in year 5 of a 3-year project to consolidate dashboards into SolarWinds. Take all the KPI's that we care about from the firewall, load balancers, tape backups, UPS'es, generators, etc. and create custom views in SolarWinds and then create our own custom dashboards. That way our IT teams and executives are all looking at "the same data" when talking. Each custom dashboard is created and modified to the team, Service Owner, executive requirements. But the drill down and source data is all the same: NPM, SAM, NetFlow, NCM, and soon-to-be UDT/IPAM. (I can't wait for LEM to get on the Orion platform).

superfly99
Level 17

I use one main dashboard that gives a good overview of the whole network - easy to see when something is down or there are issues. Then I have other dashboard for other teams showing what's more relevant to them.

imtiyaj
Level 8

Make User friendly, after User Interface testing. In Nagios Dashboard was very useful while monitoring IT devices like servers, Router etc.

tallyrich
Level 15

I love dashboards as summary, quick overview, tools. A good dashboard allows you to easily drill down as well.

sparda963
Level 12

IMO a dashboard should be quick and simple. It should not really show what, only if. Expanding on that, it should show if there is a problem, not what the problem is. We use PRTG for all of our network and server monitoring right now, and I think its dashboard is the best I have seen when it comes to this. You have a coliseum view of all your devices in an expanding outward view with your core probes in the center. Green is all good, yellow is a warning and red is error. You can then drill down to the specific issue very easily with a single click from that screen as well. You can also drill down layer by layer, but being able to jump right to the warning or error sensor saves a good deal of time.

I have not really seen anyone else with a setup like this that is both easy to navigate and gives you a the important information on one screen like this. A lot of systems tend to make their dashboards way to noisy, with an overload of information to the point where you look at it and don't know if there is a problem or not. Others give a good dashboard, but its very difficult to drill down into the problem, or you have to go through multiple layers of the onion just to get to the issue wasting valuable time.

rschroeder
Level 21

Why say dashboards should be static or fluid/dynamic and be limited by a decision?

Conditions will determine what's useful.  There are benefits to both options, and I'm open to using what's most helpful in each environment.

But I do believe in consistency of layout.  It makes things easy to find from year to year.

vinay.by
Level 16

Dashboards definitely provides a quick overview of the environment that we are monitoring, at the same time it should also add value to various stake holders and teams who would manage the environment.

I wouldn't mind placing static/dynamic/etc (other options that we could think of) to help our customers & teams. They definitely save us time.

d09h
Level 16

Having been burned once in a situation where a map didn't make it obvious enough for someone that a node was down, I kind of 'forgot' to migrate any maps when I stood up the system's replacement.  With group functionality and a naming convention that already identified location, it saved me so much time.  I can appreciate what mapping functionality can do, having made server room maps where row/ cabinet/ elevation was discernible via my maps, but in some cases, the extra step of maintaining maps was just too much when compared to dynamic group membership.  Not sure if the guy who replaced me was ever shown map functionality.  I don't think I omitted it on purpose...but I hadn't really used it for three or more years, so it never really came up.

michael.kent
Level 13

Really depends on who those dashboards are for, they may be above the NOC, but are they used by the NOC or are they for management to look at.

About the Author
Hi, I'm Matt Leib. I'm an old dude, with years on the customer side, years on the vendor side, and now, years on the channel side. Exist as a Pre-Sales Solutions Architect in the channel space. I specialize in virtualization, orchestration, storage and cloud. On my personal blog, I talk about anything from baseball and music to most technical things I enjoy including personal and enterprise tech. For the last few years, I've been a Tech Field Day delegate, and a blogger on Thwack's Geek Speak as well as a personal blog site at http://Virtuallytiedtomydesktop.wordpress.com . Always learning, growing (though sometimes, that's the waistline) and striving to be as good as I can. I also like to sing, play guitar, and am a rabid Cubs and Blackhawks fan. I live in Evanston, IL, a suburb of Chicago, also grew up here. I work for Connection Enterprise Solutions, in a strategic solutions role, speaking to C Level on Corporate IT Initiatives