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Cover Story: Network Management: Taking Larger Networks In Stride

By | February 1, 2002

      Network management is skipping ahead at a brisk pace and embracing a broader mission. It involves everything from routers and advanced traffic profiling to satellite imaging. Assorted toolkits from numerous vendors are getting more user-friendly and more capable at a time when operators are actively seeking cost-effective solutions that are easily implemented.

      Operators are not inclined to venture far beyond the desktop as they demand higher levels of performance. Controlling and managing telecom infrastructures means freeing up the customer so that energy can be directed at the revenue generating side of the business.

      With so much happening in this dynamic industry sector, one of the biggest questions often arises; namely, how do we set the boundaries for the so-called network in question?

      “Everyone does ‘network control’ in the monitor and control business. I think in terms of layers of network control, since typically subsystems feed into other subsystems that then feed into a single overall network controller,” says DeWayne Gray, president of M&C Systems in Plano, TX. “These really big overall network controllers are few and far between and normally do not really see all the details at a site level.

      “It does not really matter if it is a video broadcaster or someone like AT&T. Networks seem to have many combined and isolated subsystems. We always see ourselves as a subsystem of a network, satellite, fiber, microwave, and LAN/WAN monitor and control,” Gray adds. “We do not call ourselves network controllers since these really large systems always have other assets being monitored and controlled by other systems unrelated to ours. What I am saying is that you really need to bound the term ‘network.’ Sometimes I see others throw it out without letting the reader really understand what the context is.”

      Networks Keep Getting Bigger

      Network operators are growing their networks, and there is no sign that this trend involving immense hybrid grids is going to somehow abate. As a result, companies are scrambling to devise new products that perform a variety of network management functions efficiently and effectively at all levels–be they micro or macro in character.

      At Atlanta-based Industrial Logic Corp. (ILC), managing any device and rendering the critical data in any way is one of the top priorities, according to Richard Graham, ILC’s president and CEO. Since its recent acquisition of Crystal Computer Corp., ILC has focused on unifying the product lines of the two companies.

      “We wanted to provide customers with more dexterity in terms of upgrading,” says Graham. “Now, we can interconnect both companies’ graphical user interfaces (GUI’s), for example, with each other’s modules. This will allow Crystal’s customers to incorporate our MaxView Plus (MVP) earth station network control and element management system as part of an upgrade.”

      At Starz Encore, the GUI that is part of the CrystalVision real-time management solution is used to interface with MVP, which in turn has been selected so that engineers could write their own drivers quickly and easily while taking advantage of MVP’s SNMP and event manager benefits. Fox Network embraced the CrystalVision system back in 1996 for managing 20 different satellite feeds. As these feeds migrated from an analog to a digital format, new devices such as encoders and multiplexers were added to the mix.

      As a result, Fox incorporated MVP as part of the upgrade process in order to integrate SNMP into their existing management system. This proved to be quite cost effective as it eliminated any need for a separate management system, and it allowed Fox to avoid any retraining because no alteration to the look and feel of the CrystalVision system took place.

      Finally, Fox was able to keep the real-time responsiveness of CrystalVision in place from the standpoint of maintaining redundancy and automated back-up systems so that even the legacy analog signal path can be restored in the event of a failure of the primary digital system.

      On a larger scale, for hybrid network operators in particular, ILC’s ability to deploy a devices-in-devices-based software platform takes network management in general to the next level. A lot of telecom equipment today is modular and can be configured with a variety of diverse components to provide a rich set of features. This equipment is sometimes managed by proprietary management systems and sometimes directly through systems such as ILC’s Dominion, which Graham describes as a “manager of managers.”

      “To manage both these network elements and their managers, ILC has created the concept of ‘devices-in-devices.’ This means that Dominion can treat a router as a unique network element, and it can also treat the individual modules within the router as distinct elements,” says Graham. “It allows the user to visualize the equipment down to the card level and thus quickly identify problems at that level. Similarly, equipment that is interfaced through proprietary managers can now be isolated to the element level, even though Dominion has to talk through the proprietary manager to see it.”

      With the added capability of fault correlation and alarm filtering, Dominion also gives the hybrid network operator the ability to filter alarms that are not central to, or indicative of, the actual problem. Large and diverse networks are managed either directly to the equipment or through proprietary managers by this combination of features in Dominion.

      In a nutshell, ILC is able to provide its customers with a way to accommodate a wide variety of different functions, protocols and standards–everything from SNMP or CMIP to CORBA–and unite them into a single framework.

      Nobody Wants To Take A Hit

      SED Systems, a division of Calian Technology Ltd., is making considerable headway with clients in both mobile and fixed service categories. This Canadian company specializes in a wide range of custom designed and scalable turnkey satellite network management solutions. Inmarsat uses SED’s platform for its existing services and its new Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN) satellite system. XM Satellite Radio, a new digital audio radio service (DARS) provider based in Washington, DC, is also a client.

      “Customers are really cost conscious these days, whether it is a start-up like XM Satellite Radio, or customers who are operating existing infrastructure like Inmarsat. Nobody wants to take any kind of hit when they introduce a new system,” says Pat Thera, SED’s business director for network management systems. “Our customers are not asking us to implement rigorous security measures, as they usually implement closed networks and maintain their own security infrastructure.”

      SED was awarded the contracts for the development of the Uplink Delivery System (UDS), Uplink Management System (UMS), and Uplink Authorization System (UAS) for XM Satellite Radio. It serves as an excellent illustration of not only how complex the components that make up a satellite network management environment are becoming, but how demanding the customer requirements are becoming as well.

      Located at XM’s national broadcast center, the UDS sits on a Gigabit Ethernet backbone. It links single board computers to four discrete Time Division Multiplex (TDM) uplinks, along with redundant chains and test chains developed by SED, according to Tim Braun, SED’s marketing manager for network management systems.

      “After the audio input streams are encoded, or data input streams are received, these service components are multiplexed into broadcast channels, and are forwarded to the TDM multiplexer,” says Braun. “The TDM multiplexer aggregates all broadcast channel streams into the prescribed uplink data format, applies forward error correction, and synchronously sends the data to the RF system where it is modulated and uplinked.”

      The UMS manages day-to-day operations of the uplink delivery system, and provides an interface to the broadcast automation systems, according to Braun. Among other things, the UMS allows an operator to allocate service components to payload channels, to allocate payload channels within the TDM ensembles, and to perform M&C of the uplink delivery system equipment, including fault detection and redundancy management. All of this can be done either manually or via automatic settings.

      Finally, the UAS manages all activations and de-activations for individual subscribers to XM Satellite Radio. It also manages the entire encryption process to ensure that XM programming is properly encrypted and subscribers are enabled to receive the XM service.

      “We are focusing on developing base solutions, such as our M&C systems, and carrier monitoring systems, done in tandem with our RF systems. We see an opportunity to make these into scalable products,” says Thera. “We are also emphasizing our systems engineering capabilities, and at the same time, highlighting our prowess when it comes to global installations. Both are evident in our recent work for ESA’s new Norcia ground station in western Australia which supports the Rosetta deep space mission.”

      The Influence Of TMN And More

      The fact that several dozen GEO satellites were ordered in 2001 is cause for celebration, according to Steven Chamberlain, chairman and CEO of Lanham, MD-based Integral Systems Inc., who believes that his company is moving ahead to a “good year” in 2002.

      Last September, Integral Systems signed an exclusive long-term agreement with The Hague-based New Skies Satellites N.V. for an expanded ground control system. This follows an initial contract with Integral Systems that culminated with a systems delivery in December 2000. An expansion for New Skies of the Communications Signal Monitor (CSM) system provided by Integral System’s subsidiary, SAT Corp., is part of this agreement.

      “This long-term agreement involving our ground systems provides a significant cost break. It is an excellent model for the future, and what we see as a contractual structure which benefits all parties involved,” says Chamberlain.

      In addition to the recent release of a Windows version of its entire product line, and ongoing work on its core EPOCH version 4.0 scheduled for release in 2003, Integral Systems is introducing “Skylight,” which has automated the entire data processing chain for enterprises engaged in satellite imaging. This extends all the way from the capture of images to their distribution to clients via either X-band or L-band antennas.

      Chamberlain indicates that, among other things, new automation features and a new Web browser for remote telemetry access are also emerging at Integral Systems.

      In December, Integral Systems announced that it was acquiring Salem, New Hampshire-based Newpoint Technologies Inc., where close attention is being paid to a number of satellite-related elements which appear to be evolving simultaneously. Dan Ostrouch, Newpoint’s director of business development, points to how the transponder will be handled as a case in point.

      “In the coming decade, I believe the GEO satellite will become a platform with a power grid for supporting modules with and without onboard processors. And the transponders will be plugged in accordingly,” says Ostrouch. “We have our eye on the whole concept of managing space-based communications networks, and we are building toolkits to solve communications management problems.” According to Ostrouch, the stage is being set for another leap forward in the scope and breadth of network management as a whole.

      “The influence of the concepts expressed in Telecommunications Management Network (TMN) is beginning to play a larger role in deployed systems. TMN is an ITU project that defines the means to transport and process information related to the management of telecommunications networks and services. It provides a guideline for combining applications that range from customer provisioning to element management that are integrated together so they function as a single system,” says Ostrouch.

      Key to TMN is the successful communicating of operations data between M&C and operations support systems (OSS) applications via common communications protocols. Ostrouch stresses that for the model to work, the software packages that make up the whole solution must be very open and offer an API (application programming interface). From its inception, Newpoint Technologies’ Compass has embodied that same degree of openness that is now being driven even further by TMN.

      “We built a real-time database and server engine five years ago, which interfaced with third party applications such as Remedy and Oracle. We did this because we knew we had to address wide variations of services and multiple devices,” he adds. “In the future, this variability will only multiply while we will continue to expand the number of devices and OSS applications we interface with.”

      The need for the instantaneous delivery of specific circuit information stemming from the widespread use of service level agreements (SLAs) is just one part of the equation. Router management and router performance monitoring, which encompasses everything in motion between the video server and the satellite, are becoming essential items on the list, too.

      Newpoint Technologies has released Compass 5.0, which can process 6,000 transactions per second, per node, while adding a so-called “configuration wizard” to empower the teleport operator when it comes to making any necessary changes onsite. The steadily growing number of elements supported now totals over 100,000.

      Along with 5.0 comes Stratus-CM, a carrier management and transponder monitoring system, an A/V router management system known as Pathfinder 2.0, and a service client to manage and record data by service rather than by device or element.

      “We see demand for systems ranging from the typical teleport system to very large systems managing 500 to many thousands of devices. Our long-term focus is paying off,” Ostrouch says. “Open, flexible, the ability to make local changes and integrate with OSS applications is what everyone wants. That is where things are going and that is what we are offering today.”

      The Demand Is There

      New customers are out there, and they still come knocking, according to Gray. He reports that while fewer RFQs have come across his desk over the last few months, his company’s ratio of wins versus bids is higher than last year.

      “Our company is doing okay,” says Gray. “People with real requirements are still out there.

      “We develop tools and features, rather than develop new applications. We are a custom house that specializes in putting a box behind the knobs,” Gray adds.

      Gray also sees increasing demand for software products that aim at carrier monitoring and the automated testing of systems that entail things like the auto-calibration of signal paths as part of the telemetry testing process. In addition, the continuing emphasis on cost-savings is unchanging with customers focused on power savings, while vendors keep on pushing smarter, more efficient HPAs.

      “Today, we see a huge amount of redundancy in processors that talk to converters and HPAs. Thanks to hot standby distributed processor redundancy, a site manager’s PC can automatically take over if the front-end processor dies, for example,” Gray says.

      And thanks to advances in wireless portable touch screen technology, M&C Systems now offers a wireless remote work station that has transformed routine maintenance by allowing a technician to enter the hub of an antenna, throw switches and change frequencies remotely.

      “By eliminating a lot of walking back and forth, it contributes to the need to address reduced manpower in general on site,” Gray says.

      The Internet is viewed as if it is driven by a split personality. While Gray is enthusiastic about how life is made easier for everyone, thanks to practices like automated alarm reporting via TCP/IP with the connection and disconnection done exclusively on an as-needed basis over ISDN lines, Gray indicates that a majority of his company’s customers are not open to the use of browsers running over the Internet.

      “As for any eventual widespread adoption of Internet-based M&C systems, it is so inexpensive that it has to happen,” says Gray. “However, with the exception of the pursuit of Virtual Private Network (VPN) variations where you might want to control the routers on each end, along with all sockets and the TCP/IP ports, we generally do not see a lot of Internet applications.”

      As for the implementation of Windows.Net, it is proceeding a bit slower than expected, according to Gray, who emphasizes that it was always well understood that this would be a long process.

      “Basically the software is expected to work much more efficiently in current and future network designs so that ‘network management’ is more easily accomplished and much more reliable. Specifically, the .NET Framework is the infrastructure for the overall .NET Platform. The common language runtime and class libraries (including Windows Forms, ADO.NET, and ASP.NET) combine together to provide services and solutions that can be easily integrated within and across a variety of systems,” says Gray. “The .NET Framework provides a fully managed, protected, and feature-rich application execution environment, simplified development and deployment, and seamless integration with a wide variety of languages.”

      A Whole New Approach

      The next generation of monitoring and control (M&C) solutions did not happen overnight. At North Andover, MA-based Oracom Inc., Web services have been embraced to address the need for solutions that are easily deployed and easily customized onsite by staff in order to support real-time access and control, according to Tony Viola, Oracom’s vice president of marketing.

      The use of Extensible Markup Language (XML) and Instant Messaging (IM) guarantees the delivery of critical data, while allowing for devices to be controlled from any location. XML rendering using a drag-and-drop configuration and tools such as Visio and Macromedia’s Flash combine to yield a compelling end result in terms of upgradeable displays of live dials and switches, and edited data.

      “This approach complements our intelligent agent technology,” says Viola, adding that because the auto discover feature extends to all IP and non-IP devices, an equipment roster is automatically generated. Once found, a simple point and click is all that needs to happen, thanks to the use of an object oriented configuration that enables easy customization of device parameters.

      “Web services and standards permeate our entire product line. For instance, our intelligent agents communicate using XML-IM as a transport protocol and XML as its data structure,” adds Viola. “This combination supports easy integration into backend systems so that a device failure can be automatically correlated with the necessary service procedure on a trouble ticketing system.”

      An enhanced messaging client provides more information, control and customization.

      “This gives users more flexibility in terms of when, where and how they access their site. Essentially, this gives users their own portal,” says Viola.

      Operators like to automate M&C tasks like circuit creation. They are eager to deploy Web service-based solutions because the software can be set up and installed in a much shorter period of time, and because the implementations are easily grasped by personnel.

      Satellite Internetworking: Extensibility And Sensibility

      The current trend involving converged multimedia networks is pushing expectations higher and higher. In the satellite network management realm, this encompasses much more than timely execution. Human performance, for example, in a world where there is an increasing emphasis on multi-tasking is one of the many concerns that must be addressed on the road to profitability.

      At Dulles, VA-based Cigital Corp., Chief Technology Officer Gary McGraw is part of a team that specializes in software risk management. Cigital is engaged in identifying and analyzing how software components impact each other, and how they influence and impact business strategy, above and beyond the realm of security.

      “Business objectives have to drive technology, not the other way around,” says McGraw. “People get too enamored with the coolness of the technology, and they often forget what they are doing. Business decisions cannot be made in a context-free environment.”

      McGraw has become a leading advocate in the search to eliminate what he describes as “bloatware” and “feature creep,” two phenomena that involve software with lots of features and capabilities that are seldom if ever used, and which represent an unnecessary drain on resources. The world of satellite technology has always been software driven, so the growing role of software, and the uptick in automated command and control functionality in particular as part of the network management regime, can open the door to some unwelcome possibilities.

      “People need to better understand how their software requirements fit into their overall business models,” says McGraw. “Extensible systems that involve virtual machines will become more prevalent, and that affects overall complexity.

      “Satellite companies may want to rethink their position about their degree of openness to the Web when it comes to such things as the widespread adoption of SNMP, for example,” he adds. “While getting people out of the loop is good, you have to be sure that the program works.”

      Software complexity, extensibility and total connectivity can often conspire to create what McGraw likes to describe as the “trinity of trouble.” In the satellite industry, a conservative approach to operations is the rule rather than the exception, and yet more and more seemingly external variables are being added to both the upstream and downstream topology maps for satellite networks in general. McGraw is aware of this conservative industry-wide tradition, but he also sees the pressures mounting as the technology evolves and as innovative options come into view.

      No Time To Linger

      With companies like G3 Systems Inc. in Blacksburg, VA, engaged in researching and developing a satellite WAN combined with a wireless LAN for the U.S. Army–a.k.a. a Hybrid Wireless Satellite platform–the job of providing flexible and user-friendly network management solutions will not get any easier.

      “We are now looking into the viability of a mobile wireless LAN envelope with a revolutionary new technology that may eventually allow for a mobile battlefield environment,” says Gordon Miller III, president and CEO of G3 Systems. “The dynamic nature and immense diversity of this type of effort reinforces the importance of network management tools to ensure the best possible systems integrity.”

      While XML is on the verge of shifting into high gear in terms of widespread demand for XML-based solutions–and with variables in play like Windows.Net on the server side just starting to emerge–software designers are displaying a lot of creativity.

      “This next generation of XML tools will likely evolve as the next step beyond the current crop of HTML tools, allowing even more user control over the network monitoring applications, while giving users freedom of choice at the same time in terms of whatever end-user devices are best suited for the task at hand,” Miller says.

      Peter J. Brown is Via Satellite’s Senior Multimedia Editor. He lives on Mount Desert Island, ME.

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