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Feature Article
November 2003

A New Era For Testing And Monitoring Tools


IT departments are facing a dilemma. These organizations, once relegated to the basement operations of organizations, are now seen as vital to the well being of every level of business. These departments provide the critical backbone through which all communications with customers, suppliers, employees, and management rides on -- the lifeline of any business. They are responsible for everything from applications availability to network performance. But, with this elevated visibility in the corporate structure, comes exposure to serious cost analysis of IT department spending.

Fortunately, enterprise IT organizations have more options than ever before to reduce the costs of their communications budgets. Many new technologies and applications present opportunities for the IT department to reduce these budgets, while at the same time improving the efficiency of their operations. Converging voice, video, and data over an IP network is one option. Voice over IP has the potential to save organizations millions of dollars in long-distance expenses.

The goal then for the IT department is about more than just evaluating and deploying new technologies, it�s about ensuring that the technologies they deploy as well as the current infrastructure, are optimized, reliable, and cost effective. Before VoIP can be an effective and cost-saving business tool, it needs to offer the same reliability of landline phone.

The dilemma for IT organizations is this: How do they cost effectively deliver services -- whether they be traditional or next-generation -- to their �customers� without sacrificing performance?

Historically the answer was simple, IT organizations would utilize a plethora of testing and monitoring point solutions to ensure that not only guaranteed service-level agreements (SLAs) from their carrier were being met, but that they were also delivering the appropriate level of �service� to their �consumers,� whether they be external customers, suppliers, or internal business units. Occasionally, with or without testing and monitoring tools, an enterprise IT organization may have opted for upgrading network bandwidth as a solution for guaranteeing optimal performance of the network.

Today, however, the answer is not so simple. The scrutiny being placed on all IT spending, even for network and performance management solutions, becomes harder and harder to justify. Furthermore, IT departments have to sort through the myriad network and performance management point solutions on the market to find ones that satisfy their specific service requirements.

Therefore, the cost benefit of using converged networks for voice, video, and data traffic will only be met if an enterprise has the right solution that fits its budget to engineer the network so that business critical applications and delay-sensitive traffic are not adversely affected by low priority applications. Moreover, enterprise customers need true end-to-end performance management, not simply a solution that validates SLAs between a service provider�s IP demarcation points.

For their part, enterprise customers will have greater confidence in migrating to this converged world if they could get the kind of QoS guarantees for IP services that they have come to expect from traditional data services, like frame relay. Since IP connections do not have an assigned amount of bandwidth as does a PVC that comes with a CIR (committed information rate), enterprises would have to be certain that not only could their mission-critical applications run smoothly over an IP infrastructure but the low-delay and jitter requirements of their voice and video traffic -- both of which can be more economically supported over a meshed IP network -- can be met through an IP network.

Today enterprise IT organizations are requiring alternatives to current performance management deployment strategies. They need a highly cost-effective, scalable, and flexible approach to network service testing and monitoring that is targeted to their specific needs and service requirements. Performance tools need to support different classes of services associated with different types of communications, independent of whether the traffic crosses private networks or the Internet.

Problems need to be quickly isolated; therefore solutions must have real-time monitoring capabilities to the access line, access channel, circuit, or the application. Testing and monitoring tools must also be able to perform accurate bandwidth sizing to account for burstiness, as well as report on SLAs for end-to-end connectivity and Class of Service (CoS). Perhaps even importantly, an �open� system is required, which integrates with other key aspects of managing a network and overall business processes.

Enterprises evaluating network and performance management solutions should expect a tool that does more than merely use SNMP to communicate with WAN access devices at various sites to collect basic status data. For example, a performance tool capable of inserting traffic in the data stream can measure network roundtrip delay. If customers are to put all of their traffic on an IP network, then they need to have the kind of information that tells them whether traffic congestion occurs at a specific time and what causes the network to slow down. They need to know, for example, if network congestion is due to database backups or is Web surfing by employees. Customers will be able to tell what applications are slowing down the network if they have a performance management system and intelligent WAN access devices that allows them visibility into the network as well as into the IP traffic.

IT organizations should be able to buy testing and monitoring tools in a manner optimal for them. Enterprises want to purchase the features they need, when and how they want them. Flexibility in pricing is key. Customers should be able to get such a solution through a pricing plan that suits their budget and they should not have to pay in advance for features that they might want only at some later date. For instance, if customers decide to put data traffic on the IP network before using it as transport for voice traffic, they should not have to pay up-front voice monitoring capabilities until they need such a feature but rather have a migration path to these enhanced services as their requirements change.

By enabling initial entry at a modest price point and providing functionality in an easy to deploy, modular approach, any enterprise can utilize testing and monitoring tools based on their specific service requirements. Solutions should be offered in such a way that enterprises purchase based on immediate requirements, but can easily purchase enhanced capability, as they need it.

An open performance management solution will allow customers to fully leverage the capabilities of the product while retaining the option of using multi-vendor WAN access devices. Users should not be locked into having to install a particular vendor�s WAN access devices to monitor the network; rather, they should have the choice of exploiting the features of the performance management system using leading vendors� WAN access devices. At the very least, such a solution will offer monitoring of any SNMP enabled device and it will also allow for vertical integration with the best-of-breed network management software, WAN analysis products, reporting tools, and the like.

The importance of flexible options tailored to various customer needs should not be overlooked because not every enterprise customer will want to, or is able to, purchase an �all or none� performance management tool. In today�s networked world, it�s all about choice. Giving the customer the option to rent or lease a solution for period of time, either for some or for all of their sites is an entirely new way of looking at testing and monitoring solutions.

For instance, a customer might initially be satisfied with a real-time view of the network but later decide to add on a feature set that could offer a longer-term snapshot of network trending and performance statistics allowing for further network optimization. Customers should be allowed to decide what features of a performance management they want to use, equally importantly for what period of time they want to use them, and with what third-party management tools they want to integrate their solution. Customers running data traffic on the network should have the option of purchasing a VoIP monitoring tool only at such a time as when such a need arises, or, to use another example, at their discretion turning on a security management feature that can detect DoS (denial of service) attacks.

Migrating to new applications and technologies can be good for the enterprise network and good for business. An architecture that offers a cost-effective, flexible approach to performance management is the key to realizing the inherent cost savings and efficiencies of new services without sacrificing performance. No longer will enterprise IT managers be faced with the dilemma of choosing between cost savings and innovation or performance. With performance management solutions that allow entry at a modest price and provide additional capability and functionality in an easy-to-deploy modular approach, any enterprise can utilize powerful performance management data -- when they want and how they want -- based on their specific service requirements.

Wayne R. Fuller is the executive vice president of operations at Visual Networks, an IP performance management vendor in Rockville, Maryland. Mr. Fuller leads the engineering, technical services, information technology, and manufacturing groups at Visual Networks.

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