This is part two of the fourth installment in a five-part series on how IT managers and communications service providers (CSPs) can work together to simplify their migration of premises-based communications to the cloud. This blog post follows “Planning Your Cloud Communications Migration: Navigating IT Priorities and LAN/WAN Management Challenges” about IP access services and cloud communications.
It is important to understand that we are in the midst of this migration as shown below in this recent Frost & Sullivan survey of 2,000 IT decision makers.
Figure 1: TechTarget | Search IT Channel
This particular post is focused on service assurance for IP connectivity and how IT managers and CSPs can provide end-to-end QoS for communications. A recent survey from Nemertes research found that 36% of firms that deploy UCaaS will spend extra for some kind of direct connect or service assurance, such as MPLS, Cisco Webex Connect, or Microsoft ExpressRoute. We explore this and more and cover topics that include standard service assurance strategies offered by CSPs and enhanced services that IT managers should consider to address many of their specific situations.
Service Assurance and End-to-End Service Management
While cloud-based communications adds demands to access networks, it streamlines a critical challenge faced by IT managers, vendor “finger-pointing.” In the previous part of this post, we went to great length to describe how the site-based PBX architecture helped construct the model where CSPs manage the WAN up until the site access device and the business IT team manages the LAN and PBX operations. The point of demarcation between the LAN and WAN is typically the access device – typically a managed router, application layer gateway (ALG), or cable modem.
This model offers some clarity about who owns what. For IT managers, they typically contract with their PBX vendor and the value added reseller (VAR) for services, systems, and devices support. Given that a voice quality issue can emerge at any point in the end-to-end path, the problem often arises when troubleshooting a voice quality issue, “Is it the LAN or the WAN?” Access network providers and PBX vendors offer a mature toolset for diagnosing and troubleshooting “their side” of the demarcation point. That said, in the hosted or cloud communications model, there are multiple types of quality issues that span LAN and WAN and can lead to confusion about the source of the problem, who is responsible and how to resolve it (especially in the case of persistent issues).
This goes even further as the cloud-based communications model breaks down the significance of the demarcation barrier and puts most of the burden of responsibility on the CSP. In fact, this is often promoted by CSPs as the “one-throat-to-choke” service model, especially in the case where the CSP brings managed access connectivity and service assurance services into the business’s site. This distinction also brings nuances to ownership that should be thoroughly understood by IT and CSPs so as to help IT planners engage with CSPs to outline migration plans. In the following section, we will walk through some of the different models of how IT and CSPs can come together to manage WAN, LAN, and traffic flows across their respective networks.
Site Readiness and Preparation
CSPs and IT managers can have different but equally valid approaches to site readiness and ongoing end-to-end (LAN + WAN) management for cloud communications.
- Business Specified LAN: In this approach, the business IT team brings their own LAN solution with specific equipment, operation methods, monitoring, and troubleshooting programs. These IT teams will expect the CSP to interconnect, test, and then work within the IT teams procedures to assure real-time traffic quality.
- CSP Specified LAN: In this approach, the business IT team looks to the CSP to provide as much direction as possible on the LAN specifications. In some cases, the CSP might implement their preferred equipment suite, including access device, Ethernet switching, and upgraded cabling as part of the cloud service. This might come at some upfront cost, bundled into the monthly service charges, or negotiated for inclusion into existing charges as part of an extended contract term. Many IT teams recognize that the CSP LAN together with WAN parameters will offer the greatest service assurance for real-time media. And with installation of new LAN equipment, this approach often supports a high quality experience for other cloud and local based IT applications.
- CSP “Certified” LAN: In this case, the business may bring one of a number of LAN solutions that will need to be tested and certified by the CSP for service implementation. The CSP supports some specific equipment which can be easily certified or may support equipment outside the certification list with some additional surcharges for testing. This approach offers the business IT team some flexibility in their LAN equipment choice, but offers assurance to both the business and CSP that the LAN will carry traffic.
There are numerous variants of the above three models. As each of these options and their variants typically incur a cost, some CSPs may only offer a subset of the above options. Look for a CSP that insists on some kind of sign-off on end-to-end readiness. Beyond that sign-off and declaration of readiness, it is important that the business IT team finds a CSP that brings the set of site readiness options that makes sense for a business’s own LAN to WAN management strategy. This preference is not a question of better or worse, but really a question of “fit.”
Service Assurance Included with Cloud Communications
After establishing site readiness for cloud communications, business IT managers need to understand how the CSP handles ongoing service assurance as a part of all cloud communications offer.
- Is there remote monitoring?
- Is there any proactive assessment of audio or video quality?
- How are trouble-tickets handled?
- How is troubleshooting performed?
- What kind of troubleshooting support is required from IT?
- How does the CSP engage with 3rd party vendors if they manage the business’s LAN?
A set of questions such as these can establish what kind of responsibilities the IT department should expect as a part of implementing the cloud services. In many cases, the way the CSP plans to engage the business’s IT team fits very cleanly with how the IT operates their local network and presents very little imposition. That scenario would represent a good fit and could easily be incorporated into IT migration planning.
Business IT managers should also pay attention to how CSPs manage service assurance for OTT-based services. There are numerous steps that IT managers can take to work with CSPs to provide for high quality communications on an OTT link. That said, it can often be helpful if the CSP offers some kind of added capabilities to support OTT, especially in the areas of service monitoring, proactive alerting, and reporting.
Enhanced Service Assurance Offers from CSPs for Consideration
In most cases, CSPs and businesses both benefit where CSPs provide a robust set of service assurance capabilities included in their baseline service offer. Service quality and proactive management should not seem as if it’s an “extra,” especially considering the severe cost of poor communications quality. That said, there are many valid situations where businesses want additional service assurance capabilities above and beyond what is included. These additional services could serve a variety of business IT strategies, including:
- Further outsourcing IT support
- Extra insurance for specific and expected networking issues (e.g., video traffic surges)
- Additional security demands
- Maintaining 3rd party certifications
- Supporting premium services such as webinar support or advanced user training
Service Level Agreements (SLAs)
Another service enhancement that is popular for both IT managers and CSPs is around the terms of the service level agreement, or SLA. The SLA provides very specific terms for various aspects of IP access performance. SLA terms, contracts, and negotiations are substantial enough to justify one or more dedicated blog posts or whitepapers. For our purposes, there are many performance characteristics that can be specified in an SLA that provide the foundation quality of communications services. Some of these foundational characters are uptime, packet loss, jitter, and latency - all characteristics that can be measured and specified in an SLA. If the particular IP access circuit performance meets the specific terms of the SLA, there is a good chance that the site will see fewer or near zero call quality issues.
On the other hand, there are many ways that communications quality can be impacted outside of typical SLA terms. And SLA terms can only be as effective as the reporting and monitoring behind them. Consider latency. Sometimes, the source of latency is from outside the CSP’s network and could be a function of the 3rd party network or application performance. Unless the CSP reporting includes the source of the latency (in or outside the network), the specifications for latency may prove ineffective at ensuring higher quality of experience for communications.
The other challenge for SLAs involves the actual claim and credit process in the cases where SLA terms are broken. A couple of questions to consider are as follows: Is the claim process so onerous and difficult to deter your IT from requesting a credit? Are the credits provided (typically a refund of MRC in the period specified) substantial enough to offset the business disruption brought on by the performance incident? IT may also want to review their existing internal network quality reporting tools and check that their CSP will accept the reporting from these tools. This will streamline how IT can work with and ultimately cooperate with the CSP to enforce SLA terms.
Despite these challenges, SLAs provide an extremely valuable signal to the market and buyers - setting expectations for services performance, showcasing CSP priorities, and how CSPs manage network and delivering services. In the web era where social media, user review sites, and 3rd party sources can generate “noise” around service performance, the SLA provides a hardened reference point to make sure that IT managers are focusing on the substance of an IP access offer and have confidence to move forward.
In addition to premium SLAs, some CSPs offer proactive monitoring of service quality performance. CSPs install a probe or set of probes that allow the collection of real-time signaling and media traffic at various points in the WAN and LAN. When probes trip specified quality thresholds, CSP staff can begin looking for sources of contention or network equipment problems at the source of the service issue. Some proactive monitoring services include terms that enable CSPs to execute basic steps to resolve quality issues – from remotely rebooting devices, to rerouting traffic, to sending a technician on site.
Another popular service is to extend proactive service quality monitoring to other critical IT applications. CSP access connectivity offers often include “express” or prioritized connectivity to key cloud service providers, like Salesforce.com or Microsoft for the Office 365 suite. Where the CSP can monitor and proactively address quality of service for communications and then “quality of experience” for IT apps, then IT managers can present a more comprehensive approach to business productivity.
The last, perhaps most in demand, service that can be layered in or around a communications bundle is for security. Just as CSPs can offer remote monitoring across communications and IT applications, CSPs sit in an equally unique position to extend security protections around this traffic. The depth of what CSPs can offer in security is only increasing as vendors bring more sophisticated tools to the marketplace.
This concludes part 2 of this blog post – providing a walkthrough of service assurance for IP access services. At a minimum, this should impress upon IT buyers the importance of engaging with CSPs to understand the depth of their IP access offers. Part 3 will continue a review of IP access connectivity options relative to cloud communications demands.
*Special thanks to Don Lewis for his contributions to this article.