As the need for network testing tools grows, be sure you pick the right ones
In a perfect world, all local and wide area networks and phone systems would require little or no network management. Running a network would be like running an electrical device in the home, with hardly a thought for the network itself. But the rapid rate of technology change and the range of services and devices that underpin even the most basic corporate network mean that network diagnostic and testing tools are a growing rather than a diminishing requirement of today's IT department.
There is also a growing requirement to measure base levels of activity on a network at periodic moments so that its health can be measured and compared effectively at all times. Most network faults are due to problems with cabling, network interface cards or the network configuration. Thankfully, there is now a range of software that assists in detecting faults, but the desire for handheld hardware persists where a range of tests are required in a mixture of locations.
Primary buying and specifying issues relate to how easy to use you want the devices to be and what level of features you need. At the local area network-level, testing devices fall broadly into the following categories:
- Testing suites
- Handheld testers
- Monitoring and analysis tools
- Fibre and copper cable testers.
For wide area networks, testing devices are also specific to the service in use:
- Leased line
- Asynchronous Transfer Mode
- Frame Relay.
Network analysers measure the transfer function or impedance characteristics of the network across a broad range of frequencies.
Cable testers are the bread and butter of network diagnostics due to the high incidence of physical faults, often due to complex and badly organised cabling systems. Not surprisingly, testing tools have come a long way from the early days of tools that simply clamped onto a wire and measured electrical activity. Key data that can now be delivered includes:
- Station-level statistics focusing on power users
- Segment-level statistics giving a broad view
- Filtering for protocols or addresses
- Intelligent monitoring to assess causes of current or future problems.
It is not difficult to justify the need for network management tools. But what is difficult is estimating how much to spend. Most companies depend on their networks; some risk losing thousands of customers if a key network is unavailable for more than a few minutes. One of the problems of test equipment is that planning is needed to ensure prompt delivery and good discounts on high-priced devices.
In the US, there is a growing trend towards rental. The rental approach allows firms to budget more tightly and to consider expensive equipment for short-term use.
Firms need to have a clear strategy when it comes to network management. Diagnostic hardware must blend in with the use of sophisticated network management programs that may be running on servers, hubs and network interface cards. Most devices can provide network engineers with more than enough information to assimilate a problem. The emphasis is now on devices that are easy to use and easy to interpret, with a growing desire for information to be collected automatically and displayed in a readable format on the internet.
Many testing tools now provide a Windows user interface. This simplifies the process of importing results to desktop devices for analysis, storage and report generation.
Suppliers agree that the key issue for IT managers is the skill levels of staff in relation to the need to set up good diagnostic procedures. For this reason, they are seeking to deliver tools that are easy to use and simple to act on. In the long term, there is an aim to automate procedures as much as possible to reduce human involvement and errors.
But, as in any sector, key suppliers have succeeded partly as a result of engineers specifying hardware they are familiar with. It is well worth getting an inventory of products worked with when considering new staff to reduce training requirements where new technology is used.
The above management issues were echoed by Peter Judge, European analyst director, at Infonetics. "It is now about making the test as automated as possible and ensuring it has web interfaces. Fluke has a device which uses the network link as a voice channel so engineers don't have to shout at each other," he said.
What to look for in testing equipment
In general, analysts recommend looking for the following features when buying or renting network test equipment:
- Ease of use and helpful "wizards" and templates
- Scheduling options that allow testing to be pre-arranged
- Simultaneous testing and diagnostics
- Ensure the device fits the requirement.
- Look for network testing tools that are easy to use and easy to interpret, especially devices where information can be collected automatically and displayed in a readable format via an internet browser
- Plan ahead: it is not always possible to buy high-tech network diagnostic tools off-the-shelf. Companies should also consider renting expensive equipment for short-term use
- Don't underestimate the need for staff training when complex equipment is bought or hired. Many suppliers are trying to simplify the skillset required but the tools are still only as good as the people using them.