10 Cloud Administration Must-Haves You Can't Have Yet

A user interface can be too easy. Just ask any cloud administrator who learned the hard way that there's no undo feature. Here's our wish list for 10 things that would make a cloud admin's life much easier. Most are a few years in the making, though.

By David Taber
Thu, December 06, 2012

CIO — As I wrote in Cloud UI Design Mistakes to Avoid, it is possible to make a user interface too easy. Because by making the UI a snap to navigate, using cutesy names in place of standard terms and filling the control panel with bright, shiny objects, you make users think they know what they are doing, even when they have no clue about the consequences of their actions. This goes double for system administrators who may be setting up disaster scenarios at the touch of a button.

Don't set off the curmudgeon alarms yet. I'm not going to rant about the need for a command line for cloud applications. However, I am going to make the case for a disciplined user interface, particularly for the system administrator or super user whose actions often have serious consequences.

Cloud Administration UI Can't Follow the Tracks of Your Tears

Cloud applications and platforms have made tremendous strides in interactivity and usability of their administrative control systems. Considering that these administrator tools have to run inside a browser, some of the drag-and-drop capabilities are nothing short of amazing. No complaint from anyone there.

Commentary: Cloud and UI: CIOs Have a Big Opportunity on Their Hands

Given the amount of work involved in getting those control panels to work, it shouldn't be a surprise that there isn't much in the way of administrative cues or context-sensitive help. Most of the time, "Are you sure?" is all you can expect. Sometimes, though, "Do you understand that 108,347 leads will be affected by this?" would be a better idea. Of course, admins may blithely click Continue anyway, but at least they know they have themselves to blame.

The real problem starts when an administrator UI doesn't have a whiff of an undo. Inevitably, some actions will cause data changes that can't be undone. At the very least, you could offer to revert the administrative setting to whatever it was before the "oops."

When coding, word processing or using spreadsheets, we all expect to have several levels of undo. In the admin's browser UI, though, I can't think of an example of even a two-level administrative undo. In many cloud apps, the only way to back-track is to take a screenshot before every administrative change. What a pain.

If you're lucky enough to use an IDE to modify XML control files, you've got a fighting chance of restoring things to before-the-oops status. The Salesforce.com Eclipse-based IDE is a great example of this recovery strategy, but many admins don't know the dozen less-than-obvious best practices required to make it work in the real world.

This could be OK if the system has an administrative change log. This isn't an audit trail on the data, though: It's the change log on the system metadata. This feature is easily presented in the browser, and it's fairly easy for administrators to use to reconstruct the crime (particularly if the log can be downloaded as a CSV file).

One non-obvious best practice: Back up this change log and the user login history on at least a quarterly basis, as these metadata logs will not get backed up as part of the main database. These log backups can save a lot of pain and literally tens of thousands of dollars, so don't neglect them.

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