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Ten ways to improve your private cloud self-service portal

A private cloud portal allows users to tap into the self-service benefits of cloud. Follow these ten steps to guarantee user satisfaction, and ensure your portal runs smoothly.

Cloud computing is known for its self-service model, which allows users to provision and manage resources without the need for direct IT intervention. Most of these self-service interactions take place through a web-based portal. But simply creating a portal for your private cloud isn't enough; developers need to design and implement them in a meaningful way. Otherwise, the portal -- and your private cloud -- can fall into disuse.

Here are ten criteria to create a superior private cloud self-service portal.

Meet users' real needs

You can't create a tool without first understanding the problems that tool is intended to solve. Sometimes, designers invest extensive resources to create a private cloud self-service portal that works fine technically, but doesn't meet users' underlying needs. The result is usually a failed design.

Start with a solid design that involves users from the start, emphasizes simplicity and addresses the users' goals rather than the designers' technical prowess. A portal should give users what they need rather than what designers think they should provide.

For example, if the main goals of the portal are to provision and manage instances, that functionality should be readily available, clear and easy to follow. Limit the available options for compute or storage instances to reduce user confusion, or categorize instances based on other simple criteria, such as application type or user department. Management details should reflect a limited number of key metrics in a simple dashboard, but allow users to drill down into greater detail.

Use a phased approach

Portals are not immutable, and designers don't have to implement them perfectly on the first release. In fact, web-based cloud portals are ideal candidates for the iterative or continuous delivery models used in DevOps. Many portals start with a small suite of basic features, then refine and add more features over time.

Developers can beta test a new web portal release while simultaneously running the established portal by using a temporary or beta test URL to host the newest release candidate in a blue/green deployment. This allows users to test the new release candidate and comment on upcoming changes while still using the current portal to manage private cloud resources.

Ensure accessibility

Users won't spend time struggling to use a poorly designed website, so designers need to create an entity that is easily accessible.

Start by ensuring that the cloud self-service portal can be found at all. In many cases, designers can add the link to the portal to the organization's other webpages. They can also use search engine optimization to boost the portal's rankings in major search engines, such as Google. This is particularly important if the portal is available to users outside of the organization.

The portal should also support multiple web browsers, such as Microsoft Edge, Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox and Apple's Safari. This helps support cross-platform access for any user, regardless of the underlying endpoint configuration.

Pay attention to usability

The portal must help users solve particular problems or meet specific goals, so needs analysis is vital. But usability is centered on activities -- how the web portal actually works. Most users won't visit the portal frequently, so their expertise with the site is likely to remain small.

This means design choices should emphasize elementary tasks. The design should focus on simplicity at the surface, but allow users to drill down. Minimize the number of buttons, menu options, drop-down lists, hyperlinks and text entry points. Streamline navigational choices with careful content placement, and design the site to respond smoothly to user mistakes.

Personalize the portal

Websites can generate considerable information about users and their preferences. These preferences and choices should be saved and recalled each time a user returns to the portal, automatically populating many fields and updating account details. This dramatically speeds and simplifies the users' interaction with the web portal, and can eliminate possible errors.

Simplify user login with existing credentials. If an employee already logs in for other business tasks, such as email or messaging, it may be possible to employ a single sign-on scheme to allow authorized access to the web portal, as well.

Keep the content concise and clear

Most end users that employ a self-service portal have little, if any, IT knowledge. Documents and text filled with technical terms, jargon and assumed knowledge will simply confuse and frustrate them.

Whether it's text and instructions on the portal itself, or documents and articles for a knowledgebase, keep all content clear and concise. Feedback from a variety of test users can help identify content that is confusing or overly complex. Minimize background explanations and technical detail and focus on simple steps and short answers. Media such as diagrams, pictures and even tutorial video clips can help.

Offer multiple means of help

End users will have trouble and require assistance from time to time, and so it's essential for developers to integrate support into the web portal design.

Online help, such as PDF documents, SharePoint articles and other knowledgebase content, can offer users a dynamic, searchable compendium of self-help expertise to solve common problems. Links to email, chat, help forums, ticketed help desk platforms, and even live telephone support can all serve to connect users with IT staff capable of assisting them.

Measure the portal's performance

A private cloud self-service portal can become a vital business service, and it should be treated like one. Constantly monitor the portal and its key performance metrics. Latency and extended load times can cause user frustration, leading to unnecessary page reloads and eventual site abandonment. Try to collect metrics about site and user errors -- this will be critical to troubleshoot and improve the site later on.

Metrics should also include data about what the site is doing well, such as the number of completed operations, what those successful operations actually, and the total amount of resources provisioned and operational through the web portal.

Continually improve the portal

Just as the features and functionality of a private cloud portal can be iterative, developers can also approach the quality of the site as an iterative effort. Performance metrics are one important source of practical data that reflects what users are actually doing with the portal, and what results they obtain.

There are other ways to gather user feedback and gauge satisfaction. Send user surveys to registered users to gain insight into the site's usability, benefits and issues. Such feedback can spark ideas that developers and business leaders might never have thought about.

Deploy for availability

Much of the emphasis of web portal design revolves around software -- the codebase used to create the portal, along with other supporting platforms for databases, performance agents, analytics, help desk ticketing and more. Developers and operations staff need to make proper deployment choices for this software. A private cloud self-service portal can be a vital business asset, and deployment decisions should reflect the importance of those assets.

For example, the web portal may be deployed to a load balanced server cluster to ensure low latency and provide hardware resilience.

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