Hello? Is Anybody There? – Collaboration and IT Monitoring Tools

I’m not a dog person. Yes, I did have a dog when I was a kid and sure, they can be cute and cuddly. But they also destroy your belongings, have accidents in the most inconvenient places, and wake sleeping babies at the most inconvenient times. Cardboard Dogs, on the other hand, are a completely different story. What pray tell is a “Cardboard Dog” you may ask? The concept is fairly simple and something I’d done for a long time, but never had a name for until a co-worker pointed it out to me. When solving a difficult problem, be it a complex monitoring script or troubleshooting a TCP/IP issue, it can be helpful to talk the through the problem and potential solutions, out loud, with somebody else. What if nobody is available? Easy. Find a cardboard dog to talk to. It’s a generalized concept. Every so often I’ll fire off a Slack message to a co-worker saying “Hey. Got a second to jump on the phone? I need a Cardboard Dog for problem XYZ.” This anecdote demonstrates the power of collaboration, which dovetails nicely into the first “C” our “4 C’s of Quality IT Monitoring Tools” blog series: Collaboration.

Better to Have Data and Not Need It, Than Need It and Not Have It

Webster’s Dictionary has a definition for the word “Collaboration” so I won’t waste page real estate writing it here. However, within the context of IT monitoring software, what exactly are we talking about? If your NMS system fosters collaboration, then it means it has capabilities to allow generated insights and configuration to be easily shared. Of course, the people and systems these insights are shared with become a question of business process and security posture, but you want an NMS to possess the features should they be called upon.

Sharing is Caring

Why bother worrying about the collaborative capabilities of your IT monitoring platform? After all, the only people who will care are your line-level IT administrators and their managers, right? The IT world has changed significantly in the last five years, let alone from 20 years ago when I began working professionally. It’s more important than ever to take a holistic approach to monitoring infrastructure and applications. Collaboration helps eliminate silos between functional areas of IT and gets you closer to this holistic view. Consider the trend of hyper-convergence as an example. A single virtualization host potentially wraps up systems, storage, and network in a single physical unit. Does it really make sense for those three groups to all use different monitoring tools? It’s much better to have everybody on your staff “singing from the same hymnal”, which then leads to the second reason collaboration is important. When everybody is communicating and using the same base of information it leads to faster solutions to IT challenges.

Internal-team-based sharing is only one aspect of collaboration. Information sharing outside your organization is important as well. This idea is at the heart of the Open Source Software movement (a topic near and dear to a geek like me). Often times in the discipline of IT monitoring it can be said there’s nothing new under the sun. If you’re facing a particular challenge getting visibility it’s a good bet another administrator somewhere else is too. Like the heading of this section says, “Sharing is Caring”.

Lastly is the idea of machine-to-machine sharing and collaboration. (API blog link here) API interoperability between disparate systems is, and will likely continue to be, an important topic in Information Systems in general and IT monitoring in particular.

If your overall monitoring platform can share its insights with humans and machine alike you’ll have a leg up in the collaboration game. Ultimately, silo elimination and quicker problem resolution increases the efficiency of your IT department as a whole.

Where To Go From Here

What are the features you’re looking for in a collaborative IT monitoring tool? To start with you want to make sure your tool has good reporting capabilities. Does it have the ability to export data in a variety of ways? PDF for inclusion in emails, CSV for the purposes of slicing and dicing data via “Excel-Fu”, or even RESTFul API are some of the more popular formats.

Yet another collaborative avenue is live access. What if you don’t want to export data and look activity real-time? Given the type of information most IT monitoring tools store they should require authentication to gain access. However, all of us likely have Pointy-Haired-Bosses in our lives. “Can’t you just show me the data? I don’t want to have to futz around with logins and stuff. I just want a simple web page that displays the status of the network and our applications.” Maybe it makes sense to have unauthenticated pages that can be referenced directly or linked to a Microsoft SharePoint portal? The possibilities here are endless.

Another powerful feature is the ability to connect users at different organizations with one another so they can collaborate in solving the same problem. Let’s say both Acme Corp and Widget, Inc are using F5 to load balance their e-commerce application. Engineers at both companies likely have the same application visibility challenges. Seek out tools that allow their two IT Staffs to work together and collaborate on a solution. They’ll both be better for it.

When all is said and done, collaboration is going to be a cornerstone of any IT monitoring tool. “What information can be shared?” and “Who can that data be shared with?” should be two questions foremost on your mind during an evaluation process. Who knows? Maybe if you’re lucky your chosen vendor will throw in a Cardboard Dog to sweeten the deal?

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