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After decades of hand-holding, networks are edging closer to becoming automated. While there are still obstacles to overcome, the benefits of enhancing the overall performance of your network through automation are discussed in this featured column.

After decades of hand-holding, networks are edging closer to becoming automated. Two critical developments, driven by the unrelenting demands of VoIP, have bridged gaps in the general network management infrastructure -- network visibility and applications modeling. Recently, key participants at Spring VON 2006 in San Jose were giving the nod to immediate, albeit tentative, steps into the bright clean future of network autonomics.

On a recent panel for Troubleshooting VoIP at VON, there was critical assent to the view that automation was next for the network industry. Technology mavens from Apparent Networks, Avaya, Covergence, Psytechnics and Telchemy fielded questions on a wide variety of issues such as the need for passive versus active monitoring (both are needed), new standards such as RTCP/XR (for network-aware IP phones) and critical choices for new technology adoption.

Notably though, there was a clear sense that automating network processes was the next big challenge for the industry, particularly for VoIP. This isn't surprising -- as discussed in an earlier article (see Network retardation: Will IP networks ever grow up?), networks are overdue to catch up with the majority of the IT industry in terms of the Gartner IT Maturity Model (see figure one). Step 3, the move to automated processes with limited human management, has been slow to come and for good reasons.

Figure one

The most significant hold up has been the lack of visibility into network behaviors. Quite reasonably, network engineers are reluctant to enable automated processes that cannot be held accountable. Previously there has been only very limited capacity for measuring network performance. Without being able to confirm the effect of QoS, provisioning or changes in hardware or software, engineers relied heavily on their "feel" for what the network was doing - and on users to provide feedback on their experience (to their detriment).

The opportunity for networks is clear: Take the burden off humans to monitor (users), diagnose (support staff) and remediate/provision (engineers) the network on an on-going basis. Automating any and all of these roles can only enhance the overall performance of the network (see figure two).

Figure two

Visibility on network performance is not only important to the humans involved but it is also absolutely essential to an autonomic future. Vendors at all levels from network hardware to traditional NMS and application management systems are making headway, employing new technologies that are enabling this visibility (see The new network science), particularly in terms of application performance.

Then there is the second critical key - recently technological advances have successfully coupled network behaviors (see figure three) with the user Quality of Experience (QoE) as defined by application performance. This has been achieved by the use of application models that are embedded in network monitoring infrastructure, pre-deployment assessment tools and network devices. These application models are now well-developed for VoIP but are also being developed for other broad categories of application such as data-intensive, video and transactional.

Figure three

With a means to "see" networks and the means to couple that vision directly to the user QoE, networks are rapidly evolving toward that shiny automated future. From the VON experience, gauging time in terms of vendor agreement, it appears that this future isn't that far off.

NetworkingAbout the author: Chief Scientist for Apparent Networks, Loki Jorgenson, PhD, has been active in computation, physics and mathematics, scientific visualization, and simulation for over 18 years. Trained in computational physics at Queen's and McGill universities, he has published in areas as diverse as philosophy, graphics, educational technologies, statistical mechanics, logic and number theory. Also, he acts as Adjunct Professor of Mathematics at Simon Fraser University where he co-founded the Center for Experimental and Constructive Mathematics (CECM). He has headed research in numerous academic projects from high-performance computing to digital publishing, working closely with private sector partners and government. At Apparent Networks Inc., Jorgenson leads network research in high performance, wireless, VoIP and other application performance, typically through practical collaboration with academic organizations and other thought leaders such as BCnet, Texas A&M, CANARIE, and Internet2.

This was last published in May 2006

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