Network Management Solutions Strive to Create the New “Office of the Future”

By | November 1, 2012 | Feature, Telecom

Networks are getting more complex as companies needs for faster and efficient communications grows. Satellite can often be part of a broader communications network for enterprises, making it part of a complex eco-system. Whether satellite is a part of a broader network, or a a standalone network, the demands being placed on network management solutions are being ramped up. Here, we look at these providers are rising to the challenge.

Modern businesses are all familiar with the term “paperless office” – an enterprise management strategy that originated in the 1940s with the “office of the future” concept of lowering costs and maximizing efficiency. Satellite operators and service providers apply the same concept when it comes to network management solutions.

As stacks of spreadsheets are replaced with digital dashboards, more satellite companies are relying on network monitoring and management solutions to handle the increasing complexities and layers of their businesses. The consensus among the companies that develop these solutions is that the single biggest most important thing that network and capacity management systems do for a customer is bring all sites of a businesses together – from the executive level to planning, sales, engineering, technical support and operations.

One of those solution developers, Ahsun Murad, and CEO, Optimal Satcom, says that the satellite industry would be surprised by how channelized inter-network communication can be and how businesses can have a very segmented view of their operations.

“With a comprehensive capacity management system, you can glue all of these elements together – all the way from defining your satellites to procuring capacity,” says Murad. “If you’re a service provider, it can help you set up the contracts for leasing capacity from satellite operators, as well as define the cost structure for the capacity. Sales and marketing groups can define the revenue structure for how those services are going to be offered. The people who do forecasting, quotations and pre-sale activities can then take it from there and offer proposals to customers, so that everyone can see what’s in the pipeline not only at that moment, but also what might come up in the future. Engineers who are planning the services can then really optimize their use of capacity by taking into account the full context of the business..” 

Flagship Products

Optimal Satcom’s two main flagship products are its Complan capacity management tool and its Enterprise Capacity Manager (ECM) software system. Complan models and analyzes both commercial and military satcom systems operating in C-, Ku-, X-, and Ka-band, and is used to design and optimize networks that meet user-specified quality of service and make efficient use of satellite capacity. The ECM system integrates with Complan, as well as with all aspects of satellite capacity management into a single system for more complex technical analysis and map generation.

Murad says that as with any other system, better communications and better access of information allows customers to make better use of their resources and optimize costs. “These capabilities also make sure customers are not double ordering capacity when they might have other capacity available that they can use,” he says. “If you’re a satellite operator, you can decide what strategic markets you want to go after and whether or not it’s worthwhile for you to pursue a certain customer in a certain market segment, rather than make decisions based on historical information about those customers and segments.”

While developers in the network management sector agree on the philosophy of their trade, they differ in the physical approach to their business. James Dollar, and of, Uplogix, says he likes to differentiate his company’s products as providing network management rather than network monitoring and he is strict on the separation between the definitions of service. “Network monitoring provides a heads-up display of the network, but saying that you provide network management also means you can execute tasks, such as prioritization,” he says. “We take in data and execute tasks, as a live person would.” 

Different Sectors

Uplogix provides core decision-making products and execution products that cover a wealth of different sectors. Satellite is an important piece of the puzzle for the company. “We have a big play in satellite, mostly in oil and gas and the government sector, but we also have customers like Citigroup that think of us as a data center product,” says Dollar. “We care about satellites because we find that our customers are using them in pretty cool ways. Our base application is essentially the same as a first-level support technician – a person you would put in a helicopter or truck and send out to the communication infrastructure to execute first-level tasks and identify the triggers of technical issues. We provide a very robust system that uses non-traditional or non-production networks to both relay information back to operation centers as well as provide a two-way path for escalation of recovery tasks to the next level. If several other tasks don’t work, we can bring up an alternate satellite or cellular landline connection and then provide low-level data as the tools to support actions – all for the purpose of recovering outages.”

Dollar’s focus on cost saving is another common theme present in network management solution pitches. Kratos Defense & Security Solutions built end-to-end capabilities here by acquiring the Integral Systems group of companies. At the time of the acquisition, Kratos already supported a product called NeuralStar, which provides IT infrastructure management for communication networks and delivers enterprise network management capabilities, including NOC-level visibility, management of multiple and geographically distributed networks and automatic redundancy for continuous operations.

Michael Smith, senior vice president of enterprise technology, Kratos, said NeuralStar became a rapidly deployable all-in-one solution when it was combined with Integral’s Compass monitoring and control system for RF antenna equipment and Monics RF signal characterization and interference detection products.

“The result of that integration was an end-to-end network management system coming from the origin of the signal originates that manages all the way to its destination over both satellite and IP networks,” says Smith. “This provides the operator with a number of capabilities, but also allows them to have a better view of theirs services as they move through the network. When the service is no longer flowing through multiple management systems, the operator isn’t forced to move seats to follow that flow.” 

Alaska Case Study

To provide an example of how this service can lead to accelerated return-on-investment, Smith shares an end-user story from one of his customers in Alaska.

“We worked on a large network up in Alaska that was a combination of not only SCADA that was managing the state’s pipelines, but was also a communications network for bringing data and video out to the townships in the state,” he says. “One of the problems they had was that there was only one communication mechanism in that network to go through and reach out to those Alaskan facilities. So, if they lost a particular site, they basically had to dispatch somebody out to the site to go through and resolve those problems. Also, as the capacity at these sites changed, it caused equipment to have to be added or removed from different facilities and moved to other facilities to accommodate new requirements.”

In that case, Kratos was able to provide a back door into those sites so that the Alaskan customer could use a secondary network that was installed as a low-cost satellite link. “The customer could recover the site that failed and bring their main transmissions back online from the NOC without having to dispatch a live technician to swap out the gear,” says Smith. “That drove down their costs. Then, the customer had to dynamically configure the sites as the traffic changed. We allowed them to do that by providing configuration management utilities that would go through and upload to the Alaskan site through the central NOC without having them dispatch a software technician out to the site to change their management system and accommodate the new equipment.” 

Oil and Gas

In dealing with companies willing to invest in network and capacity tools, solutions providers have noticed trends that help them identify the needs of the market. Dollar says that enterprise satellite customers from oil and gas rigs to cruise ships often have the same network priorities ¬¬– they have to make sure the network is working and that they have the ability get it working as quickly as possible if it goes down. That said, Uplogix designed its solution to figure out the networking approach of its customer and to take automated actions without any human assistance.

“The oil and gas sector is a great example of how network management systems cut costs,” says Dollar. “The average cost for an oil and gas company to send someone out to fix a piece of networking gear is around $5,000. They have to find a helicopter and a guy with the right visa and bring them together. Generally, that takes more than eight hours to accomplish. They also have to combine that with their cost of downtime. You can double that $5,000 cost when it comes to fixing the same problems in the military satcom sector. And that includes putting a human in harm’s way, which adds protecting personnel to the list of things that the operator needs to do. There are also dangers present in the enterprise sector. Think about being responsible for sending a technician out to the middle of the North Sea in January to resolve a problem with a router or an RF amplifier. These are situations where our solutions play a strong role. We not only reduce the operational expensed, but we increase the network’s uptime.”

Kratos has its hands on a number of different network pipes. According to Smith, the company’s primary target will remain satellite operators as the convergence of satellite and IP technology forces operators work outside of a bubble. “Operators no longer have to rely on that one engineer who is forced to look at RF problems throughout the system. Now that this traffic is more digital, that engineer has to be more concerned that the IT infrastructure bringing the signal in to the RF side maintains the same signal quality going out,” says Smith, who notes that Kratos also is seeking business from larger, more diverse networks that incorporate a number of sites using microwave, satellite and IP infrastructure. “This is common in industries such as logging and oil and gas. We want to allow these companies to get data out to all of their sites and control it through the pipe itself.” 

Ka-band

Another trend that has consistently shown up across Optimal Satcom’s markets is the need for planning systems in conjunction with users or satellite operators deploying Ka-band satellites. The main reason for that trend, according to Murad, is that high-throughput satellites are much more complex. “The kinds of configurations Ka-band satellite support are more complex as are the technical issues, such as interference between beams, planning for propagation and rain fade,” he says. “These issues have consistently driven customers toward looking at capacity management systems. The traditional tools just don’t handle all those kinds of problems. Throughout the industry, operators who are deploying Ka-band satellites are looking for upgrades to their capacity management systems.”

Murad adds that the most important trend that satellite operators should notice is the shift toward mobile apps in the consumer markets. “Customers expect to be able to do something, if not everything, on their smartphone or iPad and they want to have access to information anywhere,” he says. “It’s a little bit different for the satellite industry because a lot of that information is protected. There are proprietary, confidentially and regulatory concerns, such as ITAR. These trends need to be weighed heavily against the need for system and software security and protection of information in the right way. The satellite industry is proceeding cautiously in that regard and I think we’ll see the satellite industry take a conservative approach in all of those areas because of the sensitive nature of the information we work with.”

Network management and monitoring solutions providers often talk about satellite being the most extreme networks to work with because they are both mobile in space and located in places on the ground where deploying fiber or traditional land-based connectivity is next to impossible. Dollar thinks of satellite network management issues as an extension of problems that you have inside a metropolitan area. “The remote nature of some of these enterprise satellite networks just means that it takes longer to get those critical systems up and running,” he says. “We monitor these networks constantly, so we identify problems in the first 30 seconds and start taking action in the first two minutes. We have to be the first to execute and meet every customer’s operational recovery model, regardless of what that is.”

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