Network testers take on the MAN

Network test equipment makers face a major challenge in their attempts to keep up with metro area network (MAN) operators’ diagnostic needs, according to one industry analyst.

Jessy Cavazos, San Antonio, Tex.-based researcher at Frost & Sullivan, said firms like Agilent Technologies Inc., NetTest and Vanier, Que.-based EXFO Electro-Optical Engineering Inc. must deal with the changing face of the MAN if they’re to present network owners with useful diagnostic tools.

Cavazos said the MAN is changing. Although built on Synchronous Optical Network (SONET) technology designed for voice transmission, the metro is increasingly called upon to carry data. Rather than rip out the SONET infrastructure and replace it with more data-friendly equipment, service providers use new protocols like General Framing Procedure (GFP) and Virtual Concatenation (VC) to prep the old SONET equipment for new data duties.

But the ensuing mix of technologies makes it difficult for metro operators to examine link performance across the network. Cavazos said MAN owners seek test equipment that is at once “flexible” and “comprehensive” to handle the load.

“A lot of test equipment makers are working on it,” she said. “They have products that are flexible, and that you can add on to in the future. If new technology comes up and the service provider needs to test another new technology, they just need to add a new module to upgrade the test solution.”

Agilent, for example, uses a chassis-and-modules system for its test platforms. According to Larry Desjardin, the firm’s high-bandwidth program manager for the communication network solutions business unit, this lets customers choose the module that’s right for them, whether it’s for network simulations, testing links within a storage area network or across multiple routers.

“We don’t have a theme or a name that covers it, but our intent is, since all these work on the same architecture, to address the metro area by combining the functionality,” Desjardin said, adding that Agilent would tell more in the future.

Brad Masterson, Mississauga, Ont.-based product manager with Fluke Networks in Canada, said the local area network informs the MAN. As carriers turn on services that allow customers to connect disparate locations via Ethernet – say, a LAN in Toronto and another just east of it in Pickering, Ont. – users increasingly seek insight into data transmission across the metro, and request test equipment that affords such scrutiny.

Masterson said Fluke’s products speak more to the LAN than the MAN. However, as the two come closer together, Fluke network analyzers could be used by owners of both. “Even if Bell and the carriers are going to Ethernet, we have products that address that.”

He said the Northwest Territories’ telco Northwestel, for example, recently purchased a wide area network analyzer from Fluke. “I keep hearing from our product development (people), we’re not really in the telco space,” Masterson said. But the LAN and MAN are “overlapping….One’s leading into the other.”

Cavazos said Ethernet is the technology to watch in the metro.

“Everybody agrees in the long term this is going to be the predominant technology in the market….People are trying to make money out of those data networks, and Ethernet’s cost is a big advantage,” she said, adding that aside from its low cost, the technology is also robust, having been engineered for carrier-grade reliability over the years.

Still, carriers won’t be replacing the metro’s SONET infrastructure with native Ethernet equipment in the near future, said Agilent’s Desjardin.

“About 99 per cent of builds now are based on SONET,” he said, explaining that various factors keep SONET in the loop. It’s reliable. Carriers understand it. And although a handful of competitive local exchange carriers (CLECs) pride themselves on their native Ethernet plants, many CLECs are gone, victims of the telecom bubble’s burst two years ago. The SONET-minded incumbents rule the roost and, as a result, most work on the metro speaks that ancient tongue.

Fluke’s Masterson said metro operators do well on SONET, which lays the platform for familiar services.

“Some people like the Frame Relay and the dedicated point-to-point links. They know they’re secure and they’re safe.” But with so many different services and the myriad technologies playing in the MAN, “it becomes more sticky to troubleshoot.”