Network Instruments Reveal VoIP Metrics

Latest upgrade to NI's Observer product provides window into VoIP performance on networks big and small.

By Ted Stevenson | Posted Nov 7, 2005
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Heading the list of enhancements Observer 11, the latest version of Network Instruments' network monitoring and management solution—announced today—is VoIP Expert, a suite of analysis tools aimed at managing and troubleshooting voice over IP on converged networks. We'll get to the details in a moment, but first, some backgound about the Observer product line.

The (privately held) company was founded in 1994 when—according to Charles Thompson, NI's manager of sales and engineering—corporate networks were undergoing a rapid series of changes. Topologies were changing, switches were beginning to replace hubs, Ethernet was chasing token ring off center stage. Not the least of the innovations was the interconnection of multiple local area networks into wide-area networks—WANs.

Many networks, one view
The core inspiration behind Observer, Thompson told VoIPplanet.com, was a monitoring and management product that could do both local analysis—at the location where the system administrator worked—and branch offices or other remote locations. "Having a toolset that allowed the admin to monitor both locally and remotely, with identical functionality and identical look and feel, while still maintaining a reasonable amount of network overhead" was the Holy Grail, according to Thompson.

In essence, Observer "watchs all the transactions that occur on a network—every single piece of data that flows across the network—and then provides a bevy of info," Thompson said.

Network Instruments began looking at VoIP analysis seriously when its existing customers began asking questions. "We were being very aggressively pursued by our customers, our vendors. They want to know where we're at in terms of moving to VoIP. They needed to start doing some readiness assessments," Thompson told VoIPplanet.

New VoIP vision
Looking at the market for VoIP monitoring tools that were in use by enterprise customers NI discovered that what was available was really designed for the lab—for hardware developers—not a production network admin environment. Accordingly they built a console-style expert system, with multiple streams of data reporting, rather than an oscilloscope-type view of a single call.

Specifically, VoIP Expert tracks relevant aggregate statistics like jitter, packet loss, and the QoS measures MOS [Mean Opinion Score] and R-factor. "But it also provides in-depth analysis of individual calls, and the flows that take place inside of that call," Thompson explained. An example is MultiHop analysis, a feature that can track calls across as many as 20 network segments, pinpointing areas of packet loss or delay.

The expert is in
Thompson pointed out that with the move to converged networks, phone systems are now typically being administered by people with data networking, not telephony backgrounds: "people who don't necessarily speak 'phone'," as he put it. With VoIP Expert, Thompson says, "you have all the detail you could want, you have all the agg statistics you could want, but you also have the expert processing behind it, running in the background, leading you to conclusions—holding your hand and leading you down the path."

Not only does VoIP Expert combine aggregate and detail views—and provide both local and remote reporting windows—it also balances real-time reporting with an historical record of system function.

Thompson goes on to point out "It's both in real time—as-it's-happening, live on the wire—at either a local office or a remote office—and it's based on a packet capture that they've taken from a user weeks or months ago. So it offers administrators both views: what's happening right now, as well as what's taking place historically."

Other highlights
To aid in preserving and analyzing massive amounts of network data, Observer 11 introduces GigaStor, an appliance that can capture either 4 or 8 terabytes of network traffic at wire speed. It operates on a time-based navigation system, so events—problems—can be pinpointed instantly and accurately. Network Instruments has dramatic claims about data transfer speeds, citing seconds of transfer, compared to days for a competing product.

Also new with version 11 is a version of the software for the new 64-bit version of Windows XP, which, among other things, supports a 128GB memory buffer and has an eight-fold processing speed advantage over the 32-bit version. Observer 11 comes with both 32 and 64-bit versions of the software, standard.

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