Ensuring voice and video quality about more than watching packet flows

Unified communications managers need to manages more than the network when delivering voice and video services. They must make sure they also manage the user's quality of experience.

Unified communications managers need to manage more than the network when delivering voice and video services. They must make sure they also manage the user's quality of experience.

When managing voice and video across IP networks, unified communications (UC) managers must consider more than network flows and packet loss. They must find ways to measure the user's quality of experience (QoE).

Right now, many network managers who have seen voice and video migrate onto their systems are struggling to understand this.

"There's a real gap right now between network performance and the end-user experience," said Vanessa Alvarez, industry analyst with Frost & Sullivan. "This happens for several reasons."

Alvarez said there are so many applications on the network that some organizations struggle to get a clear view of user experience with bandwidth-hungry applications like voice and video, which can be extremely sensitive to minor network blips.

"Right now, I have 10 different applications open on my computer, with three different instant messaging programs, and I'm also watching a YouTube video with Allen Cohen from Cisco," she said. "I can see the video is buffering even though my voice application is not on here. I'm sure organizations are experiencing that problem. It's a matter of being able to make that correlation between experience and the network."

Vendors from all over the network management market are seeking to close this gap between voice and video network management and user experience, Alvarez said. For instance, network security vendors like Lancope, Mazu Networks and Arbor Networks are starting to dabble in the space with their network behavioral analysis tools.

Other performance management vendors like Fluke Networks are also trying to serve this market, she said. "Fluke is well positioned with its acquisition of Crannog [Software] last year. Fluke is a network performance vendor, and they've brought Crannog on board to look at the application performance side of the thing. Now they do end-to-end performance management."

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"Rich media, whether it is Voice over IP, video conferencing, video streaming or whatever – we finally have gotten to the point where these things are reliable," said Ira Weinstein, a senior analyst and partner with Wainhouse Research. "Now we're in the second phase of making sure the user experience meets the expectations."

Other vendors are aiming directly at establishing a true measure of how users are experiencing voice and video on enterprise networks, Weinstein said. These companies include Psytechnics, Brix Networks and Telchemy. He singled out Psytechnics as having a unique approach, building algorithms that can examine how users are experiencing voice and video based on a correlation between network conditions, network activity and the actual devices being used to access voice and video.

"Instead of looking at the stream and saying, 'OK, you've got limited packet loss,' these guys [Psytechnics] look at the situation and the devices involved," he said. "Let's say you're talking about video conferencing. Certain video conferencing solutions have a way to mask or conceal certain network problems. So if there is a network problem, the video system might actually be able to manage it. It may be a technical problem, but not necessarily an experience problem."

Being able to detect false positives like that can save an enterprise from throwing resources into a firefighting operation when users aren't even suffering service degradation.

On the other hand, a vendor like Psytechnics can detect when a relatively minor network issue can mean disaster.

"Let's say I'm a service provider and I have a few seconds of packet loss that happened repeatedly over one hour of time," Weinstein said. "If you look at that packet loss across a month of service, it would be a trivial amount. But the users may have lost hundreds and hundreds of calls as a consequence of that."

Rich media like voice and video will only increase their presence on enterprise networks as unified communications gain traction. More importantly, organizations will turn to rich media as they seek to reduce travel expenses.<

"We're going to start to see a big increase in video conferencing, converged conferencing and webcasting," Alvarez said. "Webcasting vendors are already seeing a big increase in business because a lot of companies are looking to get their messages out there through different tools as an alternative to in-person events."

"For IT personnel to succeed in the way that the network's moving and the industry is moving, you really need to understand your ecosystem," she said. "It's not enough to just understand the network anymore. People are going to have to understand the OSI model from the bottom to the top. Those are the skills that organizations are going to be looking for."

Network and communications managers will not only need to know how voice and video works, she said, they will also need to understand what sort of quality the line-of-business organizations will be expecting from these technologies. IT organizations will have to set service-level agreements (SLAs) with line-of-business managers.

"Some [enterprises] are trying to get to quality of experience, but they're finding it's not a simple thing to do," Weinstein said. "It's not about looking at technical specs and saying, 'OK, that's a problem and this is not,' because this all happens in real time. It happens around the world. It's impossible for IT to actually assess it themselves just by looking at network activity. When I talk to consulting projects, I hear people asking about quality of experience. And I didn't two years ago. Two years ago, it was about network spend, but now it's about experience."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Shamus McGillicuddy, News Editor

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