Is Web-enabled network management just another pretty interface?

(ran in PC Week 7/30/97)

By David Strom

Putting a web-based interface in front of your enterprise network management tools and network devices is a small step forward for both the vendors of these products and users. However, this webification could backfire if not done properly.

In the old days BW (before the web), life for enterprise management tools was simple: you had two kinds of interfaces, telnet and proprietary consoles. Telnet was the universal command-line truth, able to connect to just about anything from routers to hosts. It was the blunt hammer in search of the nail. While the commands weren't pretty, telnet kept most of the commoners from messing around with critical network devices. The consoles took loads of training, reflected in their high price tags, which also kept the number of potential customers down too. Network management remained a duty for the high priests of the network, and remains fairly unapproachable for the rest of us.

Then came the web. Now you can find at least one product in just about every network-related category that comes with an optional web interface: you can access Ascend routers, Asante hubs, Tektronix printers, AG Group's network analyzers and even HP power supplies all via your handy web browser. Instead of those cryptic GET and PUT commands, you have easy-to-use web-based forms to point and click your way around. No more high priests: now anyone can reconfigure their router with just a few mouse clicks.

Indeed, I have put together a page on my web site with a growing number of links to several dozen examples of these and other products. One software developer, Bruce Fram, told me that "application developers who aren't using the web as their primary end-user interface will be in the same position as scribes after the invention of the printing press."

In theory, the web offers great promise. Users can roam around their networks, shift from their Windows to Mac to Unix workstations with nary a care. Just bring up your browser! And software developers can focus their efforts at designing better products, writing a single set of applications (maybe even in Java!) that will free them from trying to keep up various versions. Webification can simplify training, too, and drive the cost of maintaining an enterprise network down. Life should be great, no?

Well, just hold on here. Sometimes the theory doesn't quite make it into practice. Java and the web are turning out to be less cross-platform that the hype would lead you to believe. You still need to make sure that the right version of Virtual Machine (or the right browser, or the right Java runtime environment, take your pick) is available on your platform. And Cisco's first attempt at providing a web interface for some of its routers was miserable: the web configuration pages (which were ordinary HTML text that anybody could view) first had to be uncompressed via a PC-based installation program. So much for cross-platform ability there.

Roaming around a network sounds nice until your IS department decides to firewall off particular ports that some web-based products require. Oops, you really need port 1234 to run that software? Sorry about that.

The web interface itself is somewhat limiting when compared to other graphical interfaces such as Windows or the Mac. With the web, you have less control over screen real estate, more difficulty bringing up dialog boxes and reacting to mouse movements. Sure, there is JavaScript and Dynamic HTML to do some wonderful things, but not every browser supports these extensions and Netscape and Microsoft have implemented their support for different extensions anyhow. According to one user interface consultant, Alan Cooper, "HTML has set computer programming back 30 years and its about the worst technology I've laid eyes on." All this means writing good web-based software isn't easy.

But, there is hope for webification. Eventually vendors will refine their implementations. The Sun will rise over the Java empire, and users will feel more comfortable using the browser for more of their everyday computing tasks. In the meantime, I gotta get back to this telnet session and get some work done.