A firm with the Hollywood-inspired name "ActionPacked!" has taken on the assignment of demystifying and organizing the ways users interact with a complement of Cisco devices. New and occasional users of the Cisco Command Line Interface (CLI) are those most likely to benefit from ActionPacked! LiveAction, a tool built to help engineers manage network quality of service (QoS).
CLI versus GUI
A familiar debate pits classic command line interfaces (CLI) against rich graphical user interfaces. While many trace the market dominance of Windows back to its historic move toward a friendlier GUI decades ago, the CLI has its loyalists. A CLI typically requires a minimum level of proficiency; command line wizards are feasible, but rare; a CLI isn't likely to show you how to get something done. On the other hand, a graphical interface can be difficult or even impossible to script. Scripts are useful for automated, repetitive tasks, or for task cloning - creating multiple scripts that follow templates. The two concepts are not mutually exclusive. For instance, while Microsoft's Powershell offers a CLI / scripting language solution for Windows management tasks, Quest Software's free PowerGUI gives the PowerShell chassis a friendlier front end.
According to its designers, LiveAction was built to address the challenge of managing Cisco devices in the field by "entry level personnel." The field problems they cited are unsurprising, but perhaps especially typical among Cisco IOS users:
- Steep learning curve for the CLI
- Sheer complexity: too much information to track
- More talent is not always an option
- Slow problem diagnosis and resolution
A central claim for LiveAction is its usefulness for managing Quality of Service settings; the product is described by ActionPacked! as QoS-sensitive, QoS-aware. For instance, it is possible to configure alerts to identify worrisome trends for QoS-critical paths such as VOIP or mission-critical wireless connections. LiveAction is currently used by the American Foundation for the Blind to help manage QoS for speech to text services - a perfect use case.LiveAction may indirectly enhance device security by making it easier to set access control lists on Cisco devices, mitigate DDOS attacks in progress, update blacklists or identify traffic from unexpected sources. Whether for security or for capacity planning, LiveAction can display live flow data as a network topology overlay, as shown in Figure A.
LiveAction Flow VisualizationWhat LiveAction provides to assist in QoS management is an integrated display providing centralized access to devices and policies. The performance of traffic supported by each device can be assessed using live traffic displays, such as that provided directly from router interfaces, or, as shown in Figure B, users can eyeball summary graphs produced from monitoring those interfaces.
LiveAction QoS ChartsWhen examining alternative approaches to managing QoS, prospective users should consider the sheer number of different devices - and screens - to be visited. In some sense, a CLI may have human constraints on its scalability. The approach taken in LiveAction is shown in Figure C.
LiveAction Quality of Service (QoS) Management
To be sure, there are other viable approaches, and wizards with visualization may be fluff to those proficient with IOS CLI (though for knowledgeable users or for training purposes, LiveAction allows for the CLI it generates to be previewed). That said, LiveAction does not aim to be a comprehensive network management solution.
LiveAction is a Windows Java application. A web interface used for reporting. Pricing starts at US$ 4995.
Mini expert system
An interesting facet of this tool is its use of embedded best practices. ActionPacked! looked at Cisco's own design guides and incorporated these in LiveAction as wizards, such as to create policies from templates. If this feature is fully integrated as claimed, there is at least one clear benefit to justify the cost of ongoing software maintenance: the LiveAction wizards and help content are updated as Cisco updates its devices. For installations with multiple devices to be managed by personnel stretched thin by other network responsibilities, the benefit could be considerable.
It is instructive that the ActionPacked! parent company, Referentia Systems, identified what it saw as the need for a product of this kind while providing field services to Cisco devices owned by the U.S. Marine Corps. When interviewed to discuss LiveAction, Senior Product Manager Ken Van Orman suggested that "network complexity has reached a tipping point." An embedded expert system, whether or not it's called that, may be part of the answer.
Mark Underwood ("knowlengr") works for a small, agile R&D firm. He thinly spreads interests (network manageability, AI, BI, psychoacoustics, poetry, cognition, software quality, literary fiction, transparency) and activations (www.knowlengr.com) from a large island near NYC.