Re-emphasizing Network Performance – Pushing the Envelope: Maximizing What You Have

Re-emphasizing Network Performance – Pushing the Envelope: Maximizing What You Have

I’m excited to be back at contributing here at TheNextWeb. I’ll be bringing some technology pieces along with all the industry news we find so important. To start with, I want to share a variation on a piece I wrote not long ago. I’ll pass along an mindset to use when approaching system design that will help extend the life of our investments.

Recently I’ve been meeting with some business leaders discussing some of the core principles of networking, communications and social media technologies. My focus has long been demystifying the more arcane technology principles for business people. Those of us who work in the tech sector sometimes live and breathe the technologies we’re so passionate about. That often comes across as mumbo jumbo that really seems to add little value to business people.

As technologists, most of us aren’t really in the technology business. We’re in the problem solving business. New technologies may be wonderful and exciting. Many of us get twitches of excitement when something new comes out. But the real value of any technology is either in creating some completely new way of doing business more effectively or in solving an existing business problem. For most businesses, the value they find in technology is based on how well we can explain the problem being solved.

There’s another value in technology that gets less hype and glory. It isn’t as sexy. But it’s a foundation any business person really appreciates – getting the most possible value from your investment. In my business, I want to wring every cent of value out of every product and service I buy. That’s why I’m still using an older Dell laptop. It’s why I’m still using my two year old Blackberry Curve. We don’t throw out technology, whether hardware or software, that still serves a purpose when we’re in business. If we do, we aren’t in business for long. In other words, neither we nor our clients can operate a business on a whim. And the bigger the business, the more likely they are to really measure that life-cycle closely to wring every day of life out of their investment.

While the latest iPhone, Macbook, Netbook, tablet or what have you may look sleek and sexy; while we may want the latest and greatest of everything, we know that the prudent move is to leverage our investments to maximize the value and get the most bang for our buck for the longest reasonable time frame. That’s all part of the Return on Investment (ROI) assessment every business person has to do. Anyone in business, large or small, does some sort of ROI calculation to decide if something new is worth the cost.

Below is an excert I published last March. It came up in one of my recent meetings conversations with the president of a local company. We were talking about AT&T’s lack of 3G support here in our area. That talk led to all manner of network technologies. It set the stage for bringing some good old fashioned digital common sense back to the top of our minds and conversations.

Business networks don’t have to be completely redesigned to improve performance, reduce cost, and increase operating value. There are methodical approaches that can be used to take what’s existing today and turn it into the foundation for tomorrow with a plan for intelligent growth, expansion, upgrade or redesign without breaking the bank. Read on.

I had a conversation the other day that led me back into thinking about how we approach networks for design. There was a time in my consulting work when I believed many networks were poorly designed. But the truth is for business networks, often they weren’t designed at all. They simply spawned and grew out of constantly changing business needs.

For many organizations, the hurdle now is how to whip that beleaguered network into a state of health that can support robust and dynamic unified communications solutions that encompass data, voice and video. In chapter 5 of The Definitive Guide to Converged Network Management, I described one methodical approach to tuning network performance that drives changes to where they really deliver solution requirements. We too easily lose sight of how we ensure our networks can support and deliver all the advanced unified communications solutions we’re currently focused on. I thought I’d share this excerpt from one of the books I wrote here.

The Performance Envelope
There’s an old networking paradigm that has been used by many IT managers. When network performance seems sluggish, add bandwidth. This approach works in many cases, but it’s usually a temporary fix. It’s also an approach that, if followed over time, guarantees that network circuit costs will spiral ever upward. Bandwidth is an important characteristic in network performance, but it’s not the single most important factor. Networks have a wide-ranging set of performance characteristics that determine how smoothly they operate.

There’s a principle in network management, often related to security, which identifies three important network requirements—confidentiality, integrity, and availability (often called CIA). There are many different components and characteristics that play into achieving complete confidentiality, integrity, and availability in the enterprise network. These characteristics make up what I’ll call the network performance envelope. The shape of this envelope gives a view into the “personality” of the network.

We’ve touched on the importance of knowledge about your network operating environment up to this point. This section will put together the pieces so that you can utilize a knowledge-based approach to ensuring success in deploying integrated VoIP services. The more you know about the network, the more accurate your planning will be, increasing your ability to meet call quality expectations for end users. Better data improves your ability to provide better total network performance.

The basic concept of confidentiality, integrity and availability doesn’t offer enough granularity to fully assess the requirements for successfully delivering a converged VoIP service. To accomplish that, you’ll need to look at a broader set of data inputs. You’ll need specific, measurable data that you can assess to gain a complete understanding of both the existing network and the new requirements.

There are a nearly unlimited number of different data elements an organization might use or consider when defining the network performance envelope. This guide will use the factors shown in Figure 5.1 as an example and will explore some characteristics in more detail than others. These chosen factors provide a good representative sample of the types of characteristics enterprises might consider when working through this process.

Figure 5.1: Graphing performance characteristics.

This figure shows the basics of CIA in a granular form and brings some other network performance characteristics into the mix to ensure you can fully support converged VoIP services.
Reliability overlaps both the availability and the integrity of the network. Because it’s so important, we’ll treat reliability as a discrete evaluation factor here. Throughput also plays a dual role, providing both availability and integrity. We’ll include three facets of throughput in the example:

  • Because bandwidth is a major contributor to throughput, we’ll measure it as a standalone factor.
  • Response time provides a measurement of delay or latency in the network. As VoIP is an end-to-end service and delay is cumulative, we’ll look at response time as a broad indicator.
  • CPU utilization may be a performance factor across every element of the network.

We’ve added cost, which is unrelated to CIA in every way, but a business consideration that must be taken into account with every network change. Some enterprises might substitute a more comprehensive ROI model as part of this assessment. No matter how simple or complex your assessment mechanism, managers will have to answer for profitability and cost recovery of changes to network services.

You must asses the manageability of the network. Deploying new services that cannot be effectively managed is courting disaster and ensures failure. For many service delivery organizations, this correlates into a service level agreement (SLA), or contractual commitment.

Scalability of the network has been included here as a broad measure for future-proofing your design. Every business enterprise plans for business growth. Business growth inherently drives network growth as almost every business sector becomes more and more dependent on data networking resources. You’re striving to future-proof the network for some period of time, typically 3 to 5 years. No network designer or engineer wants to implement a major new service such as VoIP on a network, only to discover a year later that the network was under-powered during a major project and now requires a complete redesign.

Integrity encompasses network reliability requirements. Security is included here as an aspect of integrity, encompassing three facets for consideration:

  • Packet loss, if minimal, might not adversely impact VoIP services; however, it’s a performance component that should be measured and included in your analysis.
  • Jitter, or variability in delay, degrades the quality of voice services if not controlled.
  • Security can be broken down into many subcomponents. These might include firewalls, intrusion detection solutions, antivirus software, and other tools. For the purposes of this model, security will be treated as a single component.

Availability may have many different meanings to many different people. To some enterprises, and most of the telecommunications carriers, it generally indicates a guaranteed uptime at the five nines, or 99.999 percent level. Rather than deeply explore network design issues such as high availability, redundancy, and business continuity, availability will be used here as another data point on a graph for analyzing the network performance envelope.

Figure 5.2 gives you the next step in the process. It presents the framework you can use for mapping each operational characteristic of the larger network performance envelope.

Network services and applications all have unique and different requirements. Email can be delayed several minutes without any measurable negative impact. Delays in Web browsing might be barely noticeable as the browser screen gradually loads information. Its use of Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) at a higher layer guarantees information delivery, although the overhead might add delay. Web traffic is non real-time traffic, so between a person and a system, performance impact may be negligible. Integrating VoIP into the often already overtaxed data network introduces a whole new set of requirements into the network performance envelope. As these new characteristics needed for new network services are identified, they can be mapped onto the graph. As you do so, notice that the personality of your network, the performance envelope, begins to take shape.

Figure 5.2: Identifying performance characteristic requirements.

Every network service and application in operation needs to be evaluated and factored into the performance envelope data set you’re evaluating. Remember, you’re identifying the requirements for successful service delivery—your success factors. You are planning to succeed. For existing services such as email and Web traffic, you might make some simple assumptions about acceptable performance. For mainframe applications, or those that were custom-developed in-house, it might be prudent to overlay the specific requirements to support each. The key is that each requirement be identified using some measurable value. The data points or elements used by any organization can be established as appropriate.

This model is demonstrated in a very simple format. Each network has different and unique requirements depending on the services provided and applications in use. If your network employs QoS mechanisms for different traffic types, don’t forget to account for each of them when graphing out your network requirements. The more granular the data used, the more accurate the assessment of performance requirements becomes. As always, the more you know about the network, the better your decision will be.

Every performance characteristic you asses becomes a data point on the graph lines. In the next step, which Figure 5.3 shows, “connect the dots” to gain visual representation of the shape, or personality, of your network. You know what the network needs to look like to successfully deliver the existing service and applications in addition to VoIP and other new services needed.

Figure 5.3: Giving shape to the network performance envelope requirements.

For many organizations, now the easy part is completed. The next step in the process is to physically measure each data point on the graph. Some elements, such as cost and security, may be relative assessments rather than technical measurements. The key to success is to be methodical and thorough. .This step will quantify network performance capabilities today. As Figure 5.4 shows, when you map the real-world measurements from your network with the performance envelope you’ve established as a requirement, you have a gap analysis mechanism. This gap analysis can now help you focus directly on those areas of network performance that fail to meet your established requirements. This helps ensure a methodical approach to upgrading the network.

As part of the overall operational requirements of the new, converged network, security and performance management often mesh to become one overarching facet of design consideration. Achieving the delicate balance between service delivery and security requirements means that compromises and tradeoffs will be necessary. The right set of management tools will allow you to continually monitor network performance and security, assess risks, and measure performance around the clock.

Neither performance nor security can be effectively monitored as a single element within the network. The network is a large, almost organic environment. A systematic and holistic view of the health and welfare of the entire system requires vigilance and constant review. Beyond this methodical approach to assessing the network performance, requirements implementing repeatable, sustainable processes will help ensure consistent network performance that delivers both the quality and security necessary for widespread enterprise success. There are a variety of Network Management Systems (NMSs) in use in business networks today. These range from expensive commercial products to freeware and open source tools. Beyond network and security monitoring tools, there are a number of VoIP-specific solutions to aid in constant monitoring of the VoIP service. The best resource for identifying the tools that will work in your environment is generally the VoIP solution provider.

Figure 5.4: Gap analysis—Mapping existing performance against the requirements.

You can use this performance envelope graph to overlay the performance characteristics the network provides today with the requirements you’ve already documented. You know your requirements for successful service delivery and you know your network capabilities. Figure 5.4 demonstrates a common occurrence in many networks. The reality of network measurements and the requirements don’t align in all areas. In some characteristics, the network provides better service than needed. This may mean that you’re paying a premium price to a carrier unnecessarily. In other areas, there are gaps to address in order to meet service delivery needs.

Implementing a methodical approach such as the performance envelope when analyzing service requirements also helps in defining VOIP service delivery expectations. Clear expectations are a key factor to a successful implementation. This approach ensures that you know what is required.
Completing a thorough assessment of the existing network has two benefits. First, it provides an accurate and viable gap analysis to use in preparing the network for converged services. In today’s frenzied network operations environment, it’s sometimes too easy to assume that adding a switch here, a link there, and increasing the bandwidth somewhere else will meet service requirements. It’s important to take the time to complete a thorough assessment and provide comprehensive gap analysis information to achieve success. As a side benefit, especially in large, distributed networks, some enterprises will identify areas in which networks have been over-engineered in the past. This can lead to redesign and cost savings.

This performance envelope readiness assessment is an opportunity to re-evaluate the existing network and determine whether current needs are being met. Many corporate enterprise networks were not designed to be what they have become today. Networks often began as small islands of information—isolated workgroups or departmental LANs. As the network gradually grew, connections to other groups and organizations were added. In most organizations, new business applications were also added over time. Corporate networks have grown from a simple beginning into a complex and sophisticated mesh, weaving corporate operations together. Often they’ve done so without being revisited from a holistic, service delivery perspective. This performance envelope approach to network assessment can help lead to a network that delivers better performance at a lower cost.

Choosing Performance Envelope Characteristics to Measure
Data, voice, and video services each place different demands on the network. They’re different types of service. Each one is designed to provide a specific service. To support different types of service in the network, you need to be able to offer some consistent and predictable QoS that you can manage. This is often accomplished by creating a specific class of service for each type of traffic supported in the network. For some network designers, determining the number of service classes required can be a challenge. Although implementing QoS mechanisms isn’t a convergence step that’s required, many organizations find that VoIP drives the need in order to deliver the required performance characteristics.

QoS can become very complex. Implementing an overly complicated QoS scheme can lead to a network that can’t be readily supported. Rather than add undue complexity, let’s look at just some of the performance characteristics included in the performance envelope example.

As network convergence and emerging technologies gain momentum, be mindful of the danger that each new application brings. It’s important to look toward the future and not create a new class of service for every new application, or network complexity can spin out of control. For manageability, most network engineers favor using only a few critical service classes.

VoIP and video collaboration represent real-time traffic. This is most often communications information flowing from person to person, rather than interaction with a server or system. These real-time services require quick delivery with quality assurances for delay, jitter, and loss.

IP networks use a best efforts approach to deliver all general traffic. This class of service is quite suitable for email, Web browsing, and most other normal network traffic. Best effort simply uses whatever network resources are available.

In some networks, management traffic may warrant a dedicated class of service all by itself. This approach is quite common in service provider networks. It provides a mechanism to ensure the network can always be managed, regardless of congestion problems that might arise.

All QoS mechanisms provide some form of traffic prioritization scheme. In the converged network, there are many different traffic types. Each may have different requirements and different prioritization needs. Similar traffic types need to be identified so that they can be handled the same way within the network. Most organizations choose to aggregate similar traffic types. This approach allows a company to take advantage of network routes that are optimized to provide the appropriate class of service.

In designing a VoIP service network, the focus is typically on call quality for the voice user, but it’s important not to degrade pre-existing services when implementing VoIP. You need to recognize all the different traffic types in use. If mission-critical data applications aren’t given the necessary resources through QoS prioritization, the applications might “starve” for lack of resources. Email and Web traffic will still need to be delivered, even if it’s a lower priority. It’s vital to maintain balance across all traffic types when managing an integrated data, voice, and video network.

Throughput is frequently measured in terms of bandwidth. When evaluating throughput requirements, due consideration must be given to traffic aggregation points. Don’t overlook the congestion issues that can develop as a result of combining 10Megabit, 100Megabit, and Gigabit Ethernet connections on the network. This traffic, all flowing to a centralized aggregation point, may overwhelm a lower throughput link. This can aggravate network congestion and introduce service delivery problems.

Over-engineering or over-provisioning the IP network has been a common approach for many network engineers. Increasing bandwidth, by ordering higher capacity links, has been the most common technique. Adding bandwidth may alleviate short-term problems, but it’s important to remember that IP uses all the available network resources. Bandwidth is one resource. Over-engineering frequently proves to be a delaying tactic that simply stalls necessary redesign work. This approach can be more costly in the long run. Adding bandwidth still requires investment—upgrading equipment and increasing bandwidth of circuits. These can become very expensive approaches, and they don’t solve the problem of design. IP data applications can quickly consume all available bandwidth, leaving the same congestion problem to be addressed.

Response Time
Response time is one measure of network performance, most often measured using ping as a test tool. One important nuance in the converged voice and data network is the fact that voice is an end-to-end service between people. Ping can be an effective diagnostic tool, but the end-to-end nature of voice service, coupled with the fact that delay is cumulative, necessitate comprehensive management and testing to ensure service levels and call quality are maintained.

CPU Utilization
CPU utilization in network nodes offers a good indicator of the overall health of the network. In planning VoIP services, utilization might provide an indicator that network elements are overtaxed and can’t effectively support VoIP. After VoIP services are live, ongoing monitoring of CPU utilization can provide a benchmark and timeline trend analysis to monitor the health of the network over the complete life cycle.

Network Segment Utilization
Ethernet is, at its roots, a shared media technology. LAN switching provided network technicians a means to segment traffic into smaller broadcast domains. This increased granularity is now often enhanced through the use of virtual LANs (VLANs). Like bandwidth, CPU utilization, and other factors, network segment utilization can be monitored as part of the day-to-day management operations to ensure adequate network performance to support the required services.

The integrity and reliability of the network encompasses a number of different technical facets. Each can be monitored, measured, and managed as a part of network operations. In the legacy IP network, these may have provided acceptable service and been left unchecked. In the converged service network, they warrant ongoing monitoring and proactive management.

Packet Loss
A common measure is error rate and data loss. When IP networks are used to transmit normal data—email, file transfer, Web browsing, and so on—some data loss is acceptable. The higher layer protocols, such as TCP provide a measure of quality assurance and request retransmission when needed. Other data types, mainframe data, as noted, may be very intolerant of packet loss.

Jitter describes the variations in delay. As IP networks route traffic over the network using the best path identified by routing protocols, it’s possible that every packet in a stream might take a different route. A VoIP call could potentially traverse many network paths. Each route through the network may have different delay characteristics. Jitter typically isn’t a concern for the normal IP data traffic c. VoIP is far more sensitive to jitter than email or Web browsing because it is a real-time service between people. High jitter can result in unintelligible conversations that sound “jerky.” Users won’t trust or use VoIP services if the call quality is unacceptable.

Delay exists in all IP networks. It exists in several forms. Routers use statistical multiplexing algorithms to process traffic. Assembling data into packets takes time. Checking the routing protocol to identify the best route through the network takes time. These miniscule delays add up and all impact the total end-to-end delay. Delay is cumulative.

No business can operate without maintaining vigilance in controlling cost or expense. In networking, you face not just CAPEX in hardware investment but also the operating expense (OPEX) of keeping the service up and running on a daily basis. Some businesses, notably service providers, focus on profitability and use ROI as a performance envelope measurement. Enterprise businesses may treat their IT and network operations internally as either a profit center or a cost center. For many, no profit is expected, but the costs associated with implementing and managing the network still must be recovered. For most organizations, over a 3-to-5 year life cycle, network OPEX tends to be much greater than the initial CAPEX investment. It’s important to always factor the appropriate cost analysis in both VoIP pre-planning and the ongoing service management.

Availability, for many, is defined as reliability. It means that the network is fault tolerant and services don’t degrade when problems do occur. To provide reliability in the PSTN, there are millions of circuit paths available through hundreds of central offices. In an enterprise IP network, redundant paths, alternative routes, load-balanced connections, and high-availability equipment may all need to be incorporated into the design to ensure resilience in the network.

Availability in traditional telephony has often been measured as the uptime percentage. In commercial networks, you’ve heard the term “five nines reliability” (or 99.999 percent uptime) used as the target availability measure. For enterprise operations, it’s crucial to recognize that this number equates to roughly 5 minutes of downtime per year. Although the commercial telephone providers have widely met the five nines measure, there aren’t many corporate data networks that can claim less than 5 minutes downtime in the past year. Introducing VoIP and other real-times services into the network raises the bar for IP network availability and drives designers to invest in robust, fault-tolerant design solutions

When implementing VoIP solutions, network security is as great a concern as reliability and call quality. Corporate networks may include firewalls and multiple connection points. These security devices can add nodal processing delay that may impact VoIP services. The more complex a rule set in a firewall, the more latency it induces to the data flow. Remember that delay is cumulative and counts toward the 250ms maximum tolerable end-to-end delay.

VPN services are deployed in two typical fashions. Point-to-point VPN solutions may be used to connect remote offices over the Internet. Many companies also use VPN services allowing employees to connect to network resources while telecommuting or away from the office. Encryption algorithms consume processor power. A VPN device running DES or Triple DES encryption as a VPN endpoint will add further latency as packets are encrypted and decrypted. If the VPN endpoint is a firewall, this CPU load problem may be further compounded.

Security concerns reinforce the importance of assembling a comprehensive technical team for network assessment, readiness testing, and managing the operational environment. It’s crucial that the telecommunications, IT, and network security teams collaborate to be successful.

The human resources aspect of supporting network services may be the mostly costly component. This is the biggest OPEX cost component. The more complex and difficult the network is to manage, the more resources required. As network designers and service providers, we must consider the ease of management we’re incorporating into VoIP network design.

Scalability provides the best measure for future-proofing the network. Corporate networks change, grow, and evolve continually. They become very organic in nature as business needs change. The evolutions of the SOA and SaaS on the network are beginning to accelerate. The demands placed on the network will grow as applications, services, and networks become more tightly coupled with business processes. You must always consider the ease with which the network can scale to support new business applications and services.

When we work to leverage our investments, sound methodologies show that we can truly do more with less through applying digital common sense in how we leverage the resources we have. That’s a valuable tool that costs nothing, and is available to every business.

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