Unified Communications 101: UC Monitoring Tools

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With the sales team at one end of the video link and the account manager poised to do a system demo, this client presentation is going to be a breeze. You can even see the technical architect at her desk, ready to respond via instant messaging in case the team needs her input. The client logs on, and everything is set. But it doesn’t start well.

The video is pixelated, the audio has an annoying delay, and the screen sharing software seems to have crashed completely. Even though your unified communications (UC) tool says the technical architect is available, it’s taking ages for her messages to get through.

After 20 minutes of trying, the client calls off the meeting. UC could have been a slick way to showcase your company’s products and services, but poor video and audio quality have a negative effect on your brand – and it can cost you sales. No network professional wants their network to be the reason why the company doesn’t hit its targets this year, which makes investing in quality monitoring products a must.

Monitoring for UC performance

Monitoring your UC environment is critical if you want to ensure that your users get a good quality experience when they collaborate over voice and video. Standard application performance monitoring (APM) and application-aware network performance monitoring will help you do more than simply monitor performance. The tools available can track configuration changes, provide reports, and help you identify problems before your end-users even notice that anything is wrong. With remote troubleshooting capability, your engineers will be off the road for longer, saving money. Other business case benefits include full auditing capabilities and cost savings through proactive, automated testing after deployments, upgrades, and changes.

So if you are convinced that your network needs in-depth monitoring to support your UC environment, where should you go for solutions?

The UC monitoring marketplace

There are dozens of network monitoring tools to choose from. First, assess whether what you already have can take on the additional capabilities required by a UC environment. Extending your existing toolset, perhaps by taking an additional module or service from your existing vendor, is a cheaper and faster way of beefing up your monitoring capabilities.

If your assessment shows that your existing tools are not adequate for the extra monitoring that UC requires, then you need to start looking elsewhere for suitable products.

If you have a multi-vendor environment, consider Prognosis 10 from Integrated Research. It gives you a single, end-to-end view of your voice and UC services, regardless of who provides them. With support for Microsoft Lync, Avaya, and large-scale Cisco VoIP installations, among others, Prognosis is used by nearly a third of all Global 1000 organizations.

The latest release, out earlier this year, taps into the needs of network professionals who work remotely. It comes with “Prognosis First Responder,” an iOS App that can send alerts by email or SMS. If your network team is constantly on the move, this could be a bonus that makes Prognosis worth investigating further.

CA Technologies offers one of the most comprehensive network monitoring solutions on the market. CA NetQoS Unified Communications Monitor integrates with the CA NetQoS Performance Center to give you a full picture of how your network is performing under the weight of all those video chats and other applications. Fully compatible with Microsoft Lync, CA NetQoS UC Monitor also includes native support for Avaya and Cisco platforms. One of the key strengths of this solution is the integrated reporting, which gives you dashboard-style information at your fingertips – great for overviews and deeper dives into performance.

The flip side of this comprehensiveness is that the product suite is also complicated to understand. Analysts report that the workflow between CA products is weak and complex, with a poor experience for the user. It’s also pretty pricy, with entry level kits starting at $40,000. If you decide to go with CA, consider investing in professional services or consultancy to ensure you get the best value out of your implementation.

If your environment is already predominantly Cisco, consider extending it with Cisco solutions that will ensure compatibility. If you have a multi-vendor environment, however, be aware that the Cisco suite offers less coverage for non-Cisco kits.

Cisco’s Hosted Collaboration Solution takes care of UC monitoring as a service. Getting that to integrate with your existing back-office functions can be problematic, however, and you’ll still want to be sure that you can get adequate reports from your channel partner for service assurance purposes.

Cisco Prime Assurance Manager is now end-of-life, so look instead at Cisco Prime Infrastructure. This network management tool uses one graphical user interface to support the lifecycle management of your entire network infrastructure.

If you want help, Cisco offers a postdeployment assessment service to ensure that you are getting the best out of your Cisco deployment. Engineers will recommend tweaks for stability, efficiency, and maintainability, and they will ensure that your own team members have the skills they need to manage the UC environment on an ongoing basis. You could ask other vendors if they will offer the same fine-tuning service.

Another alternative for Cisco environments is Unified Communications Xpert, one of several APM tools from Opnet. Analysts were reporting last year that the product line was confusing, though, as product names had changed and the solutions were pretty complex. That’s even worse now. Opnet was acquired by Riverbed Technology late last year, with all the merging, name changes, and integration of products into an existing portfolio that come with a buyout.

On the plus side of the acquisition, Riverbed’s core business is application management, unlike some of the bigger players who have added UC monitoring tools to an existing multi-product portfolio.  Riverbed’s products support applications in 80% of the Global 100 firms.

Future-proofing your UC environment

As UC gains traction, monitoring for performance will become even more important, especially as users opt for video instead of VoIP and text. Whatever tools you choose, bear in mind that we’re likely to see some consolidation in the marketplace over the coming years, as well as existing tools offering more functionality. Your investment will go further if you carefully watch the evolution of your product and build it into your network upgrades and redesigns in the future.

We’ll also see more overlap between APM tools and application-aware network performance monitoring software. You could find that you end up with two sets of tools with similar functionality – room for consolidation there in the future.

UC is a game-changer for how we use networks today, and if your sales colleagues use it to seal their deals, it needs to perform perfectly all the time. Monitoring is the only way you can assure that enterprise teams can collaborate and connect reliably, so choose your tools with care – your colleagues will thank you for it!

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