Voice over Internet protocol only works acceptably if the network is ready for it, and now an early generation of tools is available to assess and monitor IP networks for voice traffic.
San Jose, Calif.-based network monitoring tool company NetIQ Corp. has two voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) network products, one that assesses the network before the VoIP system is deployed and one that helps administrators to monitor the new VoIP traffic once it enters the network.
VoIP vendors like Cisco Systems Inc. have management tools for individual pieces of their VoIP systems. But Steve Joyce, vice president of network technology for NetIQ, said these tools are specific to each device, so companies end up with too many different tools to get a single coherent picture of how the traffic is flowing on the network.
Elizabeth Ussher, vice president of convergence for the Stamford, Conn., research firm Meta Group, said that the approach that NetIQ and others in this space are taking provides network managers with broad strokes of information that can be more useful than the data compiled from multiple systems.
Though the market is small right now because of the limited number of VoIP systems currently deployed, she said there is a need for these kinds of VoIP-specific network monitoring and assessment tools.
Steve Brodson, a senior solutions engineer at Siemens Enterprise Networks, an arm of Germany's Siemens AG that does integration for VoIP systems, uses NetIQ's product to assess the health of a network before adding VoIP. He said that he considers this product, Vivinet Assessor, to be one of the best on the market.
He said NetIQ's assessment tool generates synthetic traffic across the network that looks like VoIP traffic. A network administrator can create as much or as little traffic as he needs depending on the expected use of the network. Then the administrator can see how the network responds and where the points of failure are likely to be.
Brodson is mostly looking for either latency in the network that can cause a loss of voice quality, or jitter, which also disrupts voice quality. Based on his findings, he can recommend that customers upgrade certain parts of their networks in order to create the high throughput, reliable environment required for VoIP.
Brodson said that the NetIQ product allows him to do his job more efficiently. He no longer has to work with multiple tools and does not have to deploy agents on the network. With NetIQ's product, he has the customer download end points -- bits of code that sit on the network -- off the Internet and install them on their network for him. These end points collect the data that he needs to determine network performance. When Brodson arrives on site, the network is ready to be tested.
In addition to integrators, Joyce said that NetIQ is selling the assessment product to large companies on a limited-use basis for a single VoIP deployment or on an ongoing basis for those that are doing multiple VoIP rollouts over time.
Brodson is in the midst of testing the company's Vivinet Manager, its network monitoring tool for VoIP. The primary reason he is not yet using it is because it does not work well with networks from vendors other than Cisco Systems, he said.
He adds that the interface is not as intuitive as it might be. "The VoIP manager is not an easy tool to use," he said. It takes training to get someone comfortable with using the product.
Others who have used the tool said it can be hard to integrate with other network monitoring tools, like those in Hewlett-Packard's OpenView platform.
The assessment tool also has room for improvement, Brodson said. While it is extremely easy to use and has the kind of intuitive interface that he said is lacking with the monitoring product, it does not give the kind of detailed breakdown of data he would like to see. For example, it will only report the average jitter on a call, not the peak jitter and how often it occurs.
Because of these shortcomings, Brodson said that he needs to keep other tools on hand, in case he needs to get this more detailed information. That is an extra step that he said he should not have to go through.
Problems such as these are not unusual in such a young market. Though VoIP is a small but growing market, Ussher said that there are already a number of companies offering similar products. Those include Integrated Research Ltd., a North Sydney, Australia, network monitoring products company that has a management tool for Cisco's CallManager. Radware, a Tel Aviv, Israel, network management product provider, has a network assessment tool to help determine which upgrades will be necessary in order to add voice over Internet protocol (VoIP).
As VoIP grows in popularity, network monitoring and assessment tools like these are likely to become mainstays for medium to large businesses, Ussher said.