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About a decade ago, just over 200 million Americans used cell phones. The iPhone, LTE service and the mobile app as we know it were still years away. Fast forward to present time: As of the end of last year, according to CTIA, Americans powered up 326.4 million active cellular devices, including smart phones, feature phones, tablets and hotspots – using 1.5 trillion megabytes of data traffic. And that number is only climbing.
One could argue that almost everything has changed in the last decade in the wireless industry, from the device types and features, to the networks they operate on, to how customers use their technology and their expectations from carriers. However, what largely hasn’t changed is the network monitoring approach that service providers use to assure a high-quality customer experience.
Network monitoring is a thankless task, and its role in helping carriers deliver a high-quality subscriber experience is undervalued. A big part of the problem is the fact that even as other types of technology become more intuitive and user-friendly, the day-to-day job of monitoring networks remains needlessly complicated and is inefficiently stuck in the call-flow-oriented past.
For a quick comparison, just look at smart phones – thanks to years of innovation, they’ve evolved to become highly powerful devices that are integral to our daily lives and are at the same time simple to use. Unless network monitoring technology can follow this same trajectory, it will never fulfill its potential in helping carriers stay ahead of network change.
The increasing importance of monitoring
With user demand for high-quality anytime, anywhere communications continuing to grow exponentially, mobile providers are evolving their core networks to higher-capacity technologies such as LTE. As they do so, continuous monitoring of network performance and security becomes increasingly critical toward delivering user-centric mobile services, allowing carriers to better retain and grow their subscriber base, improve average revenue per user and minimize operational costs.
As networks have expanded, network monitoring has increasingly become an uphill battle. The volume of traffic on the network is soaring and the networks are becoming progressively faster. The diverse mixture of applications present today, all with unique quality of service requirements, requires broader knowledge, techniques and tools. Network monitoring infrastructure – with its seemingly endless proliferation of specialized tools and probes – has become more complex, more demanding and more intrusive of the production network. In some cases, engineers literally run out of ports to attach monitoring tools.
These challenges can make it difficult to access and visualize all the traffic operators need to see – whether it’s for spotting security vulnerabilities or performance trends. Data packet flows must be must be manually configured so each monitoring tool is not overloaded or under-utilized. This may involve filtering out unnecessary data packets or removing duplicates, which can be up to half of all the packets a tool receives, so the tool is not overwhelmed. In the case of LTE networks, individual subscriber sessions must be correlated from across the network, so all the packets from a single subscriber are sent to a single probe.
While networks have grown increasingly complex, technicians today still often tackle this important task the same way they have for years. They still use command-line software and write and use lots of low-level scripts. They must manually filter, de-duplicate and re-route traffic, sometimes based on nothing more than manual calculations or an educated guess.In many instances, frequent reconfiguration and re-instrumentation is necessary in order to access all the data needed.
Achieving monitoring simplicity
As we’ve all experienced, consumer technology has evolved toward greater simplicity. More intuitive, visually appealing, easy-to-use products are now the norm, and this trend has carried over to enterprise technology to a large extent. This evolution has driven large gains in efficiency and productivity, enabling us to derive greater value from our technology investments.
We’re long overdue for the same move toward simplicity in the network monitoring industry. By freeing technicians from tedious, manual processes, they can spend their time analyzing network traffic instead of chasing after it. No longer in reactionary mode and armed with actionable insights, these technicians can focus their energy on enabling better and faster services on more complex, highly distributed networks.
In recent years, new monitoring architectures have increasingly embraced intelligent automation, and this will be a key enabler to help network monitoring professionals move toward the goal of simplicity. Automation capabilities mean that low-level tasks are handled automatically, helping to save significant time and allowing engineers to focus on more important duties.
Intelligent automation brings to the field of network monitoring the same intuitive ease-of-use we’ve come to expect from smart phones and other consumer technology. For example, new technologies allow network traffic to be filtered, de-duplicated, trimmed and aggregated automatically to provide a comprehensive view of network conditions, and settings can adapt based on dynamic conditions in the network. Network traffic can be instantly re-routed based on predefined triggers – such as sending certain flows to a forensic recorder if suspicious activity is detected. Another advantage of this approach is scalability. Simple scales – with automated architectures that detect and automatically correct problems, technicians are free to concentrate on bigger and more complex network issues.
Leonardo DaVinci is quoted as having once said, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” For wireless carriers keeping up with sophisticated networks and growing customer demand, an approach to network monitoring that embraces simplicity is critical. With modern, intuitive architectures employing next-generation technology like intelligent automation, the task of monitoring can fulfill its promise in helping network operators deliver a high-quality subscriber experience.
Scott Register has more than 15 years of experience leading product management operations for global technology companies. Register is currently the Senior Director of Product Management for Network Visibility Solutions at Ixia, after leading product management at BreakingPoint Systems prior to its acquisition by Ixia. Register has previously led product lines for Blue Coat, Permeo and Check Point Software. Register has also served as a member of the research faculty at a major university. Register holds B.S. and M.S. degrees in computer science from Georgia Institute of Technology.