Data visualization: a picture is worth a 1000 words

data visualization laptop on glass tableLast week I returned from Tech Field Day 20 in Silicon Valley. One of the themes was data visualization: how can you make data easy to consume with handy visualization techniques. The first presentation of week was by SolarWinds, showing the various data visualization products they’ve integrated in the Orion platform since 2014. And it goes quite a bit further than just throwing in a switch for a dark theme and changing an icon left and right, like Apple latest iOS. One of the challenges is that current IT infrastructure is very dynamic. If your monitoring tool can’t cope with this, it will be out of date and useless. Lets explore how SolarWinds solves this.

Monitoring and data visualization

In IT operations, you want to be able to quickly see if everything is well. A bunch of text isn’t intuitive; it takes time and knowledge to digest it into something useful. So monitoring works best with colors and graphs. At a crossroads, everyone knows what a red traffic light means: stop. They don’t have to manually piece all the signals on all other roads together. They just know that it’s red and they shouldn’t cross.

Something similar works for IT monitoring. Red signals a major problem, yellow a warning, green is good. Likewise, a reliable trend line in a capacity graph indicates you don’t have to lose any sleep over storage arrays that are about to fill up.

You might want your whole infrastructure in one dashboard to avoid missing a potential problem or outage. Too much information in one screen can overwhelm though. Depending on your role, you need different information in a monitoring system. A service desk is more interested in application status and caller queue lengths, but doesn’t care about a storage array. An infrastructure admin instead will benefit more from system or connectivity status, and the relationship between systems.

SolarWinds data visualization products

The SolarWinds offers a number of data visualization products, which are all integrated into SolarWinds Orion suite.

Network Atlas visualizes the network devices and how they connect together. Moving towards the application layer, AppStack shows the relationships between application components, in a near real-time manner. It shows you when a component in an application chain is down or performing poorly, which might affect the total application.

NetPath visualizes the path to for example a SaaS service, like a “traceroute on steroids” according to Sacha Dawes, Sr. Director Product Marketing at SolarWinds. It helps you visualize whether the problem is actually in Office 365 (talk about timing of this post!) or maybe somewhere else in your connection to the cloud.

PerfStack visualizes performance over time for various infrastructure components. It allows you to monitor various metrics that matter to you, like availability, queries per second, etc. It also gives you some historic data about these metrics, and thus allows you to go back in time to look for the root cause of a spike in service desk calls for example.

Lastly, Orion Maps can be used to generate dynamic maps with your custom components that you want to visualize in one dashboard. This allows you to customize your maps for your specific purpose, yet doesn’t make them so static that they need to be rewritten every other week.

My thoughts on monitoring and Orion Maps

Monitoring tools and data visualization serve a purpose: give insight in your applications and infrastructure, and make it easier to support the business. What you need to see depends on your role. It should be intuitive and quick to find your relevant information. These are table stakes: if a monitoring tool doesn’t add value, why are you using it?

One of the recurring issues I’ve seen with monitoring tools is that they take a lot of time to maintain. Unless you assign one or several FTE to continuously manually update it, they are out of date. People rightfully don’t trust out-of-date information, so will either ignore it or resort to system native monitoring tools. In my experience, to some extent this also applied for SolarWinds products I’ve seen in the field. You could absolutely find all the information, but it would take you a lot of clicking to get to it.

The individual SolarWinds product have a lot of potential and gather data from a wide variety of systems. Orion glues all these individual platforms together and shows the combined information in one dashboard. There were still a lot of lists and numbers though, and static drawings. Orion Maps looks like a step in the right direction in making disparate information across platforms available in a single, dynamic & visualized map. If you look at the demo video, you can see that there is still quite a bit of clicking required to add the elements. Afterwards though, the relationships between elements are added automatically. If SolarWinds can continue this momentum in making the interfaces more intuitive, they’ve got my attention.

Disclaimer: I wouldn’t have been able to attend Tech Field Day 20 without GestaltIT picking up the tab for the flights, hotel and various other expenses like food. I was however not compensated for my time. There is also no requirement to blog or tweet about any of the presentations. Everything I post is of my own accord and because I like what I see and hear.
Laptop photo credits: Carlos Muza on Unsplash