There is one word that crops up at every network and traffic management event I speak at. That word is "visibility" or, all too often, the lack of it.
For example, at seminars I have presented at, it has been revealed that a typical enterprise wide area network (Wan) has between 55 and 70 applications running across it concurrently, when the network manager assumed there were closer to 15 or 20.
At one such event, David Foster, head of the communications and networking group at Cern, said visibility was a real issue.
"Today's distributed applications require management systems to have an end-to-end view. Without visibility across network domains involved in the end-to-end path, it becomes difficult and expensive to optimise resources, perform capacity planning and isolate faults," he said.
Cern is no ordinary company. It is the world's largest laboratory dedicated to particle physics research in pursuit of the understanding of the nature of matter and the forces of nature - heavy stuff that needs to be carefully controlled.
If Cern's network has visibility issues, what does that say for more ordinary networks? Regardless of the prestige and size of the firm, the problems are the same. If you cannot see what is going on, how do you control it?
It is one thing to know exactly which devices are connected to a network - and often the IT department does not even know that for sure - but it is another thing altogether to know what traffic is running across the Wan or internet out of your office and which users are using which services and applications.
So, what kinds of traffic are proving to be invisible to network managers? The answer is various forms of chat, peer-to-peer traffic and instant messaging. Often these are applications that users have installed on their laptops and brought into work and continued to use.
A whole host of unknown protocols, applications and services are creating performance issues and making a mockery of the quality-of-service parameters the network manager has put into place. All this because of traffic - and lots of it - that network managers are largely unaware of.
If this sounds like a major problem emerging, that is because it is. It is problem enough on a Lan, where there is bandwidth aplenty, but it is even more of a problem on a Wan, and especially on internet connections, where bandwidth is expensive and in short supply.
It therefore needs to be optimised to the nth degree, where n is as close to infinity as possible. The problem with this splendidly obvious theory is how to put it into practice. There are simply so many elements and areas to cover that it can quickly become overwhelming. Traffic loads, traffic types, prioritisation issues, user behaviour control, Wan monitoring - that visibility thing - and management, proactive security, general reporting, trend analysis and so on.
Traffic shaping: a new approach
So what is the answer? How do we improve our visibility? One answer lies in the form of the EP range of traffic-management and optimisation devices I have been looking at from DBam Systems, a start-up based in the North of England - Wakefield, my home town to be precise, and now known as the traffic management capital of the universe.
During the course of testing the DBam product, we concluded that it is not a case of a single element being sufficient to control a wide area network and its users. It is the combination of elements, which is precisely what DBam offers, that is key. These elements are as follows:
● Being able to see everything that is going over the network - from layer two to layer seven.
● Being able to optimise what needs optimising and ensure that bandwidth is available on an as-required basis, but never having it nailed-up and unused.
● Being able to control users and groups of users in terms of what applications, services and protocols they are allowed to use to as finite a degree as possible, both in automated, timetabled and real-time situations.
● Being able to analyse the traffic to as finite a degree as possible, drilling up and down the traffic information - think of it as a tree - and focusing on exactly which elements are problematic.
● Having extensive reporting options so that all the captured, real-time snapshot data can be presented in a format that any level of user, from administrator to board director, can make use of.
Of course, another benefit is that you can simply speed up the transfer of data across a wide area network or the internet, rather than throwing expensive bandwidth at it. Even if you do the latter, the inherent latencies of the internet will render much of that money spent on bandwidth invalid.
So, faster is better, rather than bigger in this case. And here is where the DBam guys have really excelled. Forget everything you think you know about data compression, caching-based acceleration and the related levels of expectation.
Instead, think of the whole concept of data acceleration being re-invented from the ground up. Forget compression ratios of 10:1 and even 50:1 - they are history.
During extensive testing of the DBam technology, where we tried every which way to break it, instead all we proved was that these boys have made a very significant technological breakthrough. MP3 files cannot be compressed, right? Wrong. We got 10,000:1 acceleration with all compressed and uncompressed files.
No, that is not a misprint. Nor is it April Fools' Day. Seeing is believing.
● Steve Broadhead is founder and director of Broadband-Testing Labs
Interview with Shane O'Hanlon, chief technology officer at DBam Systems
What do you see as the main problems network managers are encountering in trying to manage and maximise their wide area network and internet connections?
"Fundamentally, the problems with maximising performance stem from application design and TCP protocol stack implementations in modern operating systems.
"The inability to conclude if performance issues are network utilisation, network quality or application faults causes administrators to be persistently questioning the core of business communications.
"The first step in any application-performance enhancement project is to analyse the network and reach a conclusion as to the cause of application performance degradation.
"We still see cases of customers installing bigger, fatter wide area network connections in an attempt to resolve issues. Is this bandwidth-oriented approach the right solution?
"For a small group of applications, purchasing increased throughput capacity is a cost-effective solution. For the majority of applications it is not. Simply stated, this is because in one form or another applications ensure the sender or receiver of data acknowledges the receipt of data.
"This limits the amount of data that can be in transit between sender and receiver, and purchasing more bandwidth does not reduce the distance between sender and receiver.
"Another limiting factor to this approach is that modern operating systems cannot receive significant benefit from increased network capacity without some form of TCP and application tuning, which is a very difficult process to put into place."
Who will benefit most from the DBam data acceleration technology, and in what ways?
"We hope developing countries will use the technology to enhance communications that would otherwise be limited by infrastructure cost. Also, homeworking with enhanced access to business applications is a benefit this technology will afford users.
"I believe our technology will form an inherent part of a paradigm shift in IP communications, utilising the advances in computational powers of computers to increase the performance of applications across the wide area network."
Is this acceleration technology applicable to streaming and broadcast traffic, such as video-over protocols like Mpeg-2 and Mpeg-4, as well as static files?
"Yes, we have successfully increased the quality of Mpeg streams for a number of customers. A variety of techniques are used to transport the data, enabling acceleration on not just applications that use TCP, but also UDP and others."