Viewing a Network: Tools for Keeping Tabs from Afar

By | November 1, 2010 | Feature, Telecom

The satellite sector has spared no efforts to enhance reliability of its services, and advancements in network remote monitoring tools are providing more benefits for operators and service providers.

Satellite networks remain viable around the globe for several reasons. From a physical point of view, satellite networks have fewer potential points of failure than their terrestrial equivalent. The latter are vulnerable to adverse local conditions such as fires, minor accidents and power outages as well as natural disasters such as extreme weather conditions and earthquakes. Satellite networks, on the other hand, are made up of fewer elements, significantly reducing the likelihood of network outages. Another factor that contributes to the overall performance of satellite services is its ingrained culture of reliability. Given the fact that it is next to impossible to carry out repairs in outer space, the satellite industry traditionally has built-in redundancy at almost every level. Most satellite operators, for example, are able to rely on in-orbit spares.

All of this means that satellite networks provide unmatched reliability, typically assuring 99.95 percent network availability or more. This result, however, should not lead to complacency; not least because outside satellite circles, unfounded prejudices against satellite services and their performance still persist. In other words, network reliability is crucial to the wider acceptance of satellite as a deliverer of high availability networks. Historically, the satellite sector has enlisted the help of a range of tools to monitor network performance. Traditional tools, however, have only been dedicated to a limited part of the problem: the radiofrequency (RF) satellite devices such as antenna controllers, spectrum analyzers, satellite modems, etc. A major challenge in today’s satellite deployments is the mix of RF satellite devices and Internet Protocol (IP) networking gear, all critical elements for a functioning network. Companies are moving to address the new reality, providing satellite operators with sophisticated tools to increase their view of satellite and network gear at remote sites as well as automated network management tools which improve problem identification and resolution times and reduce manpower needs.

View to a Network

What are the tools employed to improve satellite network management, and how do they work in practical terms? More importantly, how does a network management tool help to increase uptime? The answer is simple, though it is one that belies highly sophisticated technology: The information these systems are handling is growing in terms of volume and sophistication. In fact, network monitoring technology has improved significantly throughout recent years. Traditional tools interrogating a point-to-point VSAT link might give you half-a-dozen different statistics on basic performance metrics. Modern tools, however, provide a wider array of data and the tools to store and interpret it.

“A fair amount of increasing uptime is related to a better understanding of the network and how it is configured,” says Richard Deasington, iDirect’s director vertical marketing. “With the combination of iDirect’s traditional iVantage network management system and the recently acquired SatManage tool, for example, the number of parameters under control in a network has gone up significantly. In addition, the system allows you to store years of data for around 40 different parameters for each remote. Providing historical data is also key to this solution. “You can also make a large number of rapid interrogations of the data, and this opens a wealth of opportunities. If you ask yourself why a particular remote is not working well, historical data might give you an invaluable insight into the problem and often even provide you with the answer to what is wrong,” Deasington says.

This is, of course, an industry-wide trend, with demand for these types of solutions coming from all market segments. “The commercial realities of our customer base have caused traditional monitor and control solutions to integrate with upstream and downstream systems,” says Richard Purgason, COO of Crystal Solutions. In doing so, repetitive operations are eliminated with resultant improvements in quality and operational continuity. “Specifically, Crystal integrates with automation systems and trafficking systems to deliver more complete packaged solutions,” says Purgason.

The number of tools on the market to increase an operator’s view of a satellite and network gear at remote sites is remarkable, and this has greatly benefited operators. “Tools like ASC Signal’s Next Generation Controller (NGC) have brought significant improvements to operator’s views of satellite gear at remote sites,” says Fred Vinezeano, global product line manager, ASC Signal Corp. “As an example, the NGC provides visibility and control into essentially every Earth station subsystem connected to it and then interfaces seamlessly with a single Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP) link to any monitor and control system. This provides for both significantly simplified interconnectivity and improved granularity into what the monitor and control system, and thus the network operator, can see without having to write and connect multiple interfaces to each subsystem.” The network control package that ASC provides to broadcast networks such as ABC and NBC gives control of every antenna and receive chain components within the network — more than 200 locations for each network.

Remote Management

The technological innovation in monitoring tools is affecting dramatically the concept of remote management, including remote access to terminals. In the past, if a connection to a remote site was lost, there were a few options — contact someone at the remote location and try to walk them through troubleshooting over the phone or send out a repair engineer. In the case of satellite communications, the latter generally was an expensive proposition, because satellite likely will be used in remote locations. Remote management is replacing this.

Uplogix is one of the companies providing an integrated and automated approach to remote management and can also provide secure automated routine administration, maintenance and recovery tasks regardless of network availability. “Uplogix connects over the console port of devices making up the hybrid infrastructure to manage both in- and out-of-band,” says James Dollar, Uplogix chief architect and founder. “This means that operators can not only monitor remote gear but also automate routine management and device recovery. In the event of downtime, an automated out-of-band connection for management traffic is created over a low-Earth orbit satellite connection such as the Iridium network or a cellular modem. Operators can access remote devices as if they were on site troubleshooting the situation.

”An example is provided by Schlumberger, which uses Uplogix appliances with Iridium out-of-band connections to troubleshoot satellite connections between teleports and remote locations. “As a leading oilfield services company supplying technology and information solutions, Schlumberger had a vessel that was moving from one area of satellite coverage to another — a standard operation where a shipboard electronics technician would follow the steps to adjust VSAT equipment for the new coverage zone. However, there was a problem, and the vessel lost its VSAT connection,” says Dollar. After several hours of the onboard tech attempting to fix the issue, a call was placed to the Schlumberger control center in Aberdeen. Within moments, operators were able to connect to the Uplogix appliance on the vessel via an Iridium modem, access the VSAT modem and RF amplifier to troubleshoot the issue, and bring the broadband connection back up.

There is no doubt these tools are meeting the demand coming from the marketplace, improving network availability and increasing customer satisfaction. The areas of uplink power control and switching provide prime examples. “Ku- and Ka-band services are gaining in popularity every year due to their higher throughputs. However, they are more susceptible to rain-induced interference,” says Purgason. “Crystal’s solutions have a long history of preventing rain-induced outages through a combination of automated uplink power control and site diversity switching. Since these functions are executed by the system, they operate with such speed and precision that the services delivered to the end customer are unaffected.”

Other examples come from the area of recovery from failed configuration changes, one of the most common causes of truck rolls when managing remote networks for which Uplogix developed a solution named SurgicalRollback. “Users are authenticated, and if they have the correct credentials, are allowed to log into the remote device they want to work on,” says Dollar. In addition to logging every action and keystroke, the appliance adds the safety net of confirming changes with the administrator changes. If an event such as an accidental change to the access control list occurs, and the administrator is, in effect, cut off from the device, the appliance will allow the change but seek confirmation from the administrator. “If the operator is cut off and can’t reply, the lack of response will trip an inactivity timer, which will start the appliance rolling back the exact changes made to the device,” says Dollar.

Win-Win Solutions

These innovations largely benefit service providers, which see greater uptime for critical satellite communications, so what returns do solutions providers see for their investment? Evidence shows that state-of-the art monitoring tools can help providers avoid missed SLAs (service level agreements) and potentially keep manpower requirements down. SatManage includes recognition software that facilitates meeting SLAs. “For example, twice a year satellites go through sun outage. SatManage has a prediction function built into it,” says Deasington. “This means that when these events occur, they can be recognized for what they are and not mistaken for system failures.” This can be handy when it comes to SLAs, which can include exclusions for such events. It is estimated that 80 percent of satellite networking problems are due to events that do not affect the SLA. The system also allows the user to run scheduled maintenance. This has two benefits: It reduces manpower needs as well as helps service providers prove to customers that they are meeting the SLAs. In other words, state-of-the-art network monitoring tools are a win-win solution for service providers and clients.

Giovanni Verlini is a communication executive and freelance journalist based in Europe. Email: giovanniverlini@hotmail.
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