No new networking product, service or significant network enhancement or modification is ever completed without using telecom network test equipment to some degree.
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Despite this, network testing and the equipment that supports it have not traditionally been viewed as "strategic" by even the most savvy network operators. In 2009, however, a few telecom operators began to rethink the role that network test equipment could play in their strategic operations processes, and the result may change how all operators use test equipment.
Telecom network test equipment has evolved into two distinct product sets:
- Lab-installed equipment used for load testing devices and configurations, and for conformance testing.
- Field equipment used by operations specialists as part of their diagnostic and repair missions.
While there is a loose relationship between both these activities and network operations centers (NOCs), the benefits of a tighter relationship are becoming clearer.
In a 2007 survey of 44 global network operators, CIMI Corporation found that only seven had any specific interest in tighter coordination between the NOC and the testing lab. By the fall of 2009, that number had tripled. The primary driver was the desire to use lab setups to help reproduce and thus diagnose network stability and performance problems A close second, and the fastest-growing of the drivers, was the desire to test remedial behavior in the lab quickly before deploying it.
Telecom network test equipment can address outages, increasing costs
Errors and unexpected consequences associated with attempts to remedy network problems from the NOC are among the top three causes of operations outages and the top three contributors to growth
in network operations costs (the other two are equipment failure and transmission facility failure). Operators have found coupling operations control and lab simulation activities too complicated to be very helpful, but that is now changing.
Load testing devices and protocol simulation suites are increasingly script-driven and can thus be pre-loaded with various scenarios that could be run quickly and analyzed to help suggest solutions to problems in the live network. So far, this isn't seen as a remedy for major outages, but rather one for nagging issues of stability and performance. That may change as test vendors become more comfortable with the notion of NOC integration of their test tools.
That same comfort level is the barrier to the second change in test equipment usage -- field test coordination with the NOC. While some network problems can be solved remotely through configuration changes, actual hardware failures demand on-site personnel, and some network problems may also require the special testing precision that a portable instrument in the hands of a specialist can bring. But getting field personnel coordinated with NOC resources to focus attention on the right issues is increasingly difficult with the increased number of protocols and protocol layers involved in modern networks.
Several large network operators are now looking at having very tight coordination between the NOC and field technicians, achieved through downloading test sequences from the NOC to the field in response to problems. The idea is that the NOC would maintain a repository of tests, much as many already maintain a database to help with problem isolation and resolution. When a step in their analysis and recovery process requires field technical dispatch and coordination, it can link to test files that can be sent to the field specialist for execution.
Continued: Network performance testing trends indicate need for tight NOC-field integrationn
About the author: Tom Nolle is president of CIMI Corporation, a strategic consulting firm specializing in telecommunications and data communications since 1982. He is the publisher of Netwatcher, a journal addressing advanced telecommunications strategy issues. Check out his SearchTelecom.com networking blog Uncommon Wisdom.