The End of the GUI Era

We should set the stage by looking at some historical context around GUIs and their role within the world of systems administration.

In the “olden days” we did not have graphical user interfaces on any computers at all, let alone on our servers. Long after GUIs began to become popular on end user equipment, servers still did not have them. In the 1980s and 1990s the computational overhead necessary to produce a GUI was significant in terms of the total computing capacity of a machine and using what little that there was to produce a GUI was rather impractical, if often not even completely impossible. The world of systems administration grew up in this context, working from command lines because there was no other option available to us. It was not common for people to desire GUIs for systems administration, perhaps because the idea had not occurred to people yet.

In the mid-1990s Microsoft, along with some others, began to introduce the idea of GUI-driven systems administration for the entry level server market. At first the approach was not that popular as it did not match how experienced administrators were working in the market. But slowly, as new Windows administrators and to some degree as Novell Netware administrators, began to “grow up” with access to GUI-based administration tools there began to be an accepted place in the server market for these systems. In the mid to late 1990s the UNIX and other non-Windows servers completely dominated the market. Even VMS was a major player still and on the small business and commodity server side Novell Netware was the dominant player mid-decade and still a very serious contender late in the decade. Netware offered a GUI experience but one that was very light and should probably be considered only “semi-GUI” in comparison to Windows NT’s rich GUI experience offered by at least 1996 and to some degree earlier with the NT 3.x family, although Windows NT was only just finding its place in the world before NT 4’s release.

Even at the time, the GUI-driven administration market remained primarily a backwater. Microsoft and Windows still had no major place on the server side but was beginning to make inroads via the small business market where their low cost and easy to use products made a lot sense. But it was truly the late 1990s panic and market expansion brought on by the combination of the Y2K scare, the dotcom market bubble and excellent product development and marketing by Microsoft that a significant growth and shift to a GUI-driven administration market occurred.

The massive expansion of the IT market in the late 1990s meant that there was not enough time or resources to train new people entering IT. The learning curve for many systems, including Solaris and Netware, was very steep and the industry needed a truly epic number of people to go from zero to “competent IT professional” faster than it was possible to do with the existing platforms of the day. The market growth was explosive and there was so much money to be made working in IT that there were no available resources to effectively train new people who needed to be coming into IT as anyone qualified to handle educational duties was also able to earn so much more working in the industry rather than working in education. As the market grew, the value of mature, experienced professionals became extremely high, as they were more and more rare in the ever expanding field as a whole.

The market responded to this need in many ways but one of the biggest ones was to fundamentally change how IT was approached. Instead of pushing IT professionals to overcome the traditional learning curves and develop the needed skills to effectively manage the systems that were on the market at the time, the market changed which tools that they were using to accommodate less experienced and less knowledgeable IT staff. Simpler and often more expensive tools often with GUI interfaces began to flood the market allowing those with less training and experience to at least begin to be useful and productive almost immediately even without ever having seen a product previously.

This change coincided with the natural advancement of the performance of computer hardware. It was during this era that for the first time the power of many systems was such that while the GUI still made a rather significant impact to performance, the lower cost of support staff and speed at which systems could be deployed and managed generally offset this loss of computing capacity taken by the GUI. The GUI rapidly became a standard addition to systems that just a few years before would never have seen one.

To improve the capabilities of these new IT professionals and to rush them into the marketplace the industry also shifted heavily towards certifications, more or less a new innovation at the time, which allowed new IT pros, often with no hands on experience of any kind, to establish some degree of competence and to do so commonly without needing any significant interaction or investment from existing IT professionals like university programs would require. Both the GUI-based administration market, as well as the certification industry, boomed; and the face IT significantly changed.

The result certainly was a flood of new, untrained or lightly trained IT professionals entering the market at a record pace. In the short term this change work for the industry. The field went from dramatically understaffed to relatively well staffed years faster than it could have done so otherwise. But it did not take long before the penalties for this rapid uptake of new people began to appear.

One of the biggest impacts to the industry was that there was an industry-wide “baby boom” with all of the growing pains that that would entail. An entire generation of IT professionals grew up in the boot camps and rapid “certification training” programs of the late 1990s. This resulted in a long term effect of the rules of thumb and general approaches common in that era becoming often codified to the point of near religious belief in a way that previous, as well as later, approaches would not. Often, because education was done quickly and shallowly, many concepts had to be learned by rote without an understanding of the fundamentals behind them. As the “Class of 1998” grew into the senior IT professionals in their companies over time, they became the mentors of new generations and that old rote learning has very visibly trickled down through similar approaches in the years since, even long after the knowledge is outdated or impractical and in many cases it has been interpreted incorrectly and is wrong in predicable ways even for the era from which it sprang.

Part of this learning of the era was a general acceptance that GUIs were not just acceptable but that they were practical and expected. The baby boom effect meant that there was little mentorship from the former era and previously established practices and norms were often swept away. The baby boom effect meant that the industry did not exactly reinvent itself as much as it simple invested itself. Even the concept of Information Technology as a specific industry unto itself took its current form and took hold in the public consciousness during this changing of the guards. Instead of being a vestige or other departments or disciplines, IT came into its own; but it did so without the maturing and continuity of practices that would have existed with more organic growth leaving the industry in possibly a worse position than it might have been would it have developed in a continuous fashion.

The lingering impact of the late 1990s IT boom will be felt for a very long time as it will take many generations for the trends, beliefs and assumptions of that time period to finally be swept away. Slowly, new concepts and approaches are taking hold, often only when old technologies disappear and knew ones are introduced breaking the stranglehold of tradition. One of these is the notion of the GUI being the dominant method by which systems administration is accomplished.

As we pointed out before, the GUI at its inception was a point of differentiation between old systems and the new world of the late 1990s. But since that time GUI administration tools have become ubiquitous in their availability. Every significant platform has and has long had graphical administration options so the GUI no longer sets any platform apart in a significant way. This means that there is no longer any vendor with a clear agenda driving them to push the concept of the GUI. The marketing value of the GUI is effectively gone. Likewise, not only did systems that previously lacked a strong GUI nearly all develop one (or more) but the GUI-based systems that did not have strong command line tools went back and developed those as well and developed new professional ecosystems around them. The tide most certainly turned.

Furthermore, over the past nearly two decades the rhetoric of the non-GUI world has begun to take hold. System administrators working from a position of a mastery of the command line, on any platform, generally outperform their counterparts leading to more career opportunities, more challenging roles and higher incomes. Companies focused on command line administration find themselves with more skilled workers and a higher administration density which, in turn, lowers overall cost.

This alone was enough to make the position of the GUI begin to falter. But there was always the old argument that GUIs, even in the late 1990s, used a small amount of system resources and only added a very small amount of additional attack surface. Even if they were not going to be used, why not have them installed “just in case.” As CPUs got faster, memory got larger, storage got cheaper and as system design improved the impact of the GUI became less and less so this argument of having GUIs available got stronger. Especially strong was the proposal that GUIs allowed junior staff to do tasks as well making them more useful. But it was far too common for senior staff to retain the GUI as a crutch in these circumstances.

With the advent of virtualization in the commodity server space, this all began to change. The cost of a GUI became suddenly noticeable again. A system running twenty virtual machines would suddenly use twenty times the CPU resources and twenty times the memory and twenty times the storage capacity of a single GUI instance. The footprint of the GUI was noticeable again. As virtual machine densities began to climb, so did the relative impact of the GUI.

Virtualization gave rise to cloud computing. Cloud computing increased virtual machine deployment densities and exposed other performance impacts of GUIs, mostly in terms of longer instance build times and more complex remote console access. Systems requiring a GUI began to noticeably lag behind their GUI-less counterparts in adoption and capabilities.

But the far bigger factor was the artifact of cloud computing’s standard billing methodologies. Because cloud computing typically exposes per-instance costs in a raw, fully visible way IT departments had no means of fudging or overlooking the costs of GUI deployments whose additional overhead would often even double the cost of a single cloud instance. Accounting would very clearly see bills for GUI systems costing far more than their GUI-less counterparts. Even non-technical teams could see that the cost of GUIs was adding up even before considering the cost of management.

This cost continues to increase as we move towards container technologies where the scale of individual instances becomes small and smaller means that the relative overhead of the GUI becomes more significant.

But the real impact, possibly the biggest exposure of the issues around GUI driven systems is the industry’s move towards the DevOps system automation models. Today only a relatively small percentage of companies are actively moving to a full cloud-enabled, elastically scalable DevOps model of system management but the trend is there and the model leaves GUI administrators and their systems completely behind. With DevOps models direct access to machines is no longer a standard mode of management and systems have gone even farther than working solely from the command line to being built completely in code meaning that not only do system administrators working in the DevOps world need to interact with their systems at a command line but they must do so programmatically.

The market is rapidly moving towards fewer, more highly skilled systems administrators working with many, many more servers “per admin” than in any previous era. The idea that a single systems administrator can only manage a few dozen servers, a common belief in the GUI world, has long been challenged even in traditional “snowflake” command line systems administration with numbers easily climbing into the few hundred range. But the DevOps model or similar automation models take those numbers into the thousands of servers per administrator. The overhead of GUIs is becoming more and more obvious.

As new technologies like cloud, containers and DevOps automation models become pervasive so does the natural “sprawl” of workloads. This means that companies of all sizes are seeing an increase in the numbers of workloads that need to be managed. Companies that traditionally had just two or three servers today may have ten or twenty virtual instances! The number of companies that need only one or two virtual machines is dwindling.

This all hardly means that GUI administration is going to go away in the near, or even the distant, future. The need for “one off” systems administration will remain. But the ratio of administrators able to work in a GUI administration “one off” mode versus those that need to work through the command line and specifically through scripted or even fully automated systems (a la Puppet, Chef, Ansible) is already tipping incredibly rapidly towards non-GUI system administration and DevOps practices.

What does all of this mean for us in the trenches of the real world? It means that even roles, such as small business Windows administration, that traditionally have had little or no need to work at the command line need to reconsider the dependence on the local server GUI for our work.   Command line tools and processes are becoming increasingly powerful, well known and how we are expected to work. In the UNIX world the command line has always remained and the need to rely on GUI tools would almost always be seen as a major handicap. This same impression is beginning to apply to the Windows world as well. Slowly those that rely on GUI tools exclusively are being seen as second class citizens and increasingly relegated to more junior roles and smaller organizations.

The improvement in scripting and automation tools also means that the value of scale is getting better so that the cost to administer small numbers of servers is becoming very high on a per workload basis which means that there is a very heavy encouragement for smaller companies to look towards management consolidation through the use of outside vendors who are able to specialize in large scale systems management and leverage scripting and automation techniques to bring their costs more in line with larger businesses’ costs. The ability to use outside vendors to establish scale or an approximation to it will be very important, over time, for smaller businesses to remain cost competitive in their IT needs while still getting the same style of computing advantages that larger businesses are beginning to experience today.

It should be noted that happening in tandem with this industry shift towards the command line and automation tools is the move to more modern, powerful and principally remote GUIs. This is a far less dramatic shift but one that should not be overlooked. Tools like Microsoft’s RSAT and Server Administrator provide a GUI view that is leveraging command line and API interfaces under the hood. Likewise Canonical’s Ubuntu world now has Landscape. These tools are less popular in the enterprise but are beginning to make the larger SMB market able to maintain a GUI dependency while also managing a larger set of server instances. The advancement in these types of GUI tools may be the strongest force slowing the adoption of command line tools across the board.

Whether we are interested in the move from the command line, to GUIs and back to the command line as an interesting artifact of the history of Information Technology as an industry or if we are looking at this as a means to understanding how systems administration is evolving as a career path or business approach for our own uses it is good for us to appreciate the factors that caused it to occur and why the ebb and flow of the industry is now taking us back out to the sea of the command line once again. By understanding these forces we can more practically asses where the future will take us, when the tide may again change, how to best approach our own careers or decide on both technology and human talent for our organizations.

One thought on “The End of the GUI Era”

  1. Thanks for another great article. This helps me a lot in planning my next career move, and confirms my overall suspicion that the technological world of the future SMB sysadmin is going to be very different than what it is today.

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