Tools and processes that end the blame game, get projects done faster, and expand your business.
Companies that provide network services – system integrators, consultants, service providers, or network-attached equipment manufacturers – continually strive to improve client satisfaction and increase profitability, all while facing increased network complexity. The challenges that face field teams include unknown or undocumented network environments, complicated troubleshooting across the entire network and application environment, inconsistent procedures, variations in knowledge and experience, and a host of ‘tools or solutions’ that are supposed to help them deliver on–time, on–budget services.
For project managers, directors or executives of companies that offer these services, this article looks at the challenges faced by field teams and recommends some best practices to help them improve their efficiency and effectiveness.
Most jobs within the sphere of IT involve work that is focused on a fixed network system. The core and data center infrastructure is well-established, critical traffic flows on links that are stable, solid, and relatively well documented. Network engineers and technicians work with these familiar systems and the applications they support on a daily basis. They know them like the back of their hand – well, mostly.
The Network Tech Field TeamThese teams are quite different; they are comprised of network engineers, integrators, consultants, and field technicians who are confronted with a much different environment. They work in a dynamic IT landscape which changes with each customer they support. These teams may include engineers from a System Integrator or VAR, consultants, a service provider’s “Professional Services” team, or installation and maintenance support from a network-attached equipment manufacturer. The customer of a field team may require their services when support is needed on a new project, or when a problem is experienced on a present system.
Customer projects may include:
- Pre-deployment network assessment
- Installing new equipment (network infrastructure technology or other network-attached equipment)
- Creating network documentation
- Baselining present network and application performance
- Troubleshooting poor performance or other problems
- Managed services; adds,moves, changes
The Jobs and Best Practices of Field Team OrganizationsThe projects that field teams carry out for their customers are as varied as the individual network environments they work in. This calls for the field engineer to be both highly skilled and adaptable, since no two projects are exactly the same. Regardless of the specific task at hand, there are a few best practices that will help ensure the project is successful, while maximizing the profits of the field team.
Pre-Deployment Assessment:To prevent surprises later in the project, and to create an accurate project plan in the first place, a thorough assessment of the client environment must be completed. Full knowledge of pre-existing conditions, performance, inventories and architecture is essential to limit financial risks and ensure a successful deployment. This is especially true when the project involves a wireless (802.11 WLAN) component.
Install and Test:Installation and turn-up goes well beyond “racking and stacking” and testing connectivity with a few flashing lights. Best practices include a “test as you go” methodology, which limits the scope of problem solving to a single area of the network. If testing is reserved only for the end of the project, it may be more difficult to quickly isolate the problem domain, which will cost more time. Problems that crop up during installation must be dealt with quickly, and promised performance must be verified, proving that the infrastructure will support present and future traffic loads. In the case of a capital equipment manufacturer (such as network-attached inventory handling equipment, medical or document imaging systems, security devices, etc.) the vendor field team has to ensure and document that the equipment is installed correctly, and can readily connect to any necessary management consoles or servers, both local and remote.
Documentation/Reporting:A typical “last step” before project completion (and often necessary before payment for services rendered), clients often require documentation proving that the project was completed as specified. Complete documentation makes follow-on services and support more efficient, serving as a guide to engineers who may not have been present during system installation.
Minimize Callbacks/Fast Troubleshooting:If the best practices of the prior steps are followed, minimizing callbacks is a natural result. Validating and documenting the project prior to completion will protect the field team from blame if changes are made by the customer post-project. This protection is critical since dispatching field teams for post-installation support is an expensive task, biting into project profits. If callbacks and follow-on support are required, project managers should take steps to ensure that the team is equipped with the right tools, processes, documentation and training to minimize time spent on support calls.
Managed Services:Ongoing support can be a lucrative revenue stream for field team organizations, often sold as part of a post-installation support agreement. Minimizing the time and costs of support and adding new sources of revenue increases profitability.
Challenges Facing Field TeamsEven though each environment is unique and each project has a myriad of details to consider, the underlying factors that complicate project delivery are surprisingly common across the different types of field team organizations. These challenges include the following:
Unknown Network Environments:Field engineers are expected to “parachute in” to an unfamiliar system, make recommendations, and begin executing the project as quickly as possible. They are left to guess about pre-existing issues that could delay or prevent the delivery of a successful project. Client provided documentation is often unreliable or out-of-date, and the support staff assigned to the team may not have the knowledge of system details required for an accurate estimate. Ultimately, this will lead to lost money for the field team. Without the right tools, skill, and visibility, field teams spend increased time on-site, or may need to contract out network assessments to outside consultants, reducing project profitability.
Blame Game:This is an especially frustrating challenge that arises for field teams. During the course of a project, the client may blame them for introducing problems on the network, whether these were pre-existing or not. Or, the blame game could be internal to the IT organization itself, with individual departments pointing fingers at each other when a problem strikes. Field team engineers may be pulled into providing input into these conflicts, distracting them from their core project.
Frequently, field engineers must play the role of “educator” – explaining various aspects and functions of technology (such as the basics of TCP internetworking) to less technical clients, taking valuable time away from project deployment, and increasing costs. Arguments of “It’s your equipment!” and “No, it’s your network” are frequent and unproductive.
Providing Proof:Whether proving that the installation is providing the specified function and performance, or as part of resolving the “blame game”, the documentation, whether in the form of reports or trace files is required. Minimizing the time and effort to produce that evidence is essential.
Manual Processes:Many field teams rely on manual, non-repeatable processes for creating maps, inventory reports, user connectivity diagrams, and other network and service documentation. This step in project delivery may suffer simply because it requires too much time.
Varied Skills, Capabilities, and Tools of Field TeamThere may be a large variation in knowledge and experience among team personnel, limiting the ability of the company to provide consistent, high-level services. Itfield team has to provide unbiased proof to back up claims. Opinions are not sufficient to end the blame game – verifiable data and may be difficult to create standard procedures for new team members due to the fact that the same task is rarely repeated on every unique network system.
Finding New Sources of RevenueThe field team may be so busy with reactive work from past projects that there is little time for the organization to expand into new services such as network assessments, troubleshooting or problem consulting. Expanding revenue is difficult when existing staff lack the skills and tools to offer new services. Making engineers more efficient on existing jobs and providing them a more powerful toolset can enable expansion into these new revenue areas. If a field engineer is not prepared to face these challenges, project completion could be delayed, causing frustrated customers and even lost business.
Every day, IT environments are getting more complex and business critical, meaning that these challenges will only get more difficult and important to overcome. Where there is difficulty or complexity for clients, there is an opportunity for business expansion for the integrator or service provider.
OptiView XG Network Analysis Tablet – Designed for Field TeamsFrom its inception, the OptiView XG Integrated Network Analysis Tablet was designed to help mobile engineers effectively face these challenges. This multifunction highly-portable analyzer provides the tools necessary to discover, test, troubleshoot, document, and validate the network quickly, giving instant in-depth knowledge to the analyst.
Armed with this data, the field team can ensure no surprises from the start of a project all the way through to on-time completion. Post-project validation ensures both happy customers and reduced callbacks, freeing field teams to begin new projects or offer expanded services.
Specific features on the OptiView XG address the needs of the various types of field teams, and can be used throughout the delivery of a project. The following section shows how these features directly help field teams overcome the challenges they face.
Graphical Path Analysis instantly discovers the end-to-end network path and health.
Challenge: Unknown Network Environment
Features: Automated Network Discovery, Path AnalysisWithin a few minutes, the OptiView XG can be configured to discover every switch, server, call manager, wireless LAN controller, VLAN, router, access point, wireless user, printer, and host on the network. Detailed device data is collected, inventoried, and presented to the engineer in a clear network discovery view. Along with discovery, switch and router details can be displayed showing link connectivity, speed, utilization, link partner, port errors, and even NetFlow data.
With the Graphical Path Analysis feature, the layer two and layer three switch and router path from client to server is shown, along with utilization and error detail for all interfaces along the way. This data enables the field team to quickly get up to speed on the network environment, with the same (or often better!) level of understanding as the person who designed and installed the network in the first place.
ClearSight Analyzer make any field engineer a packet decode expert.
Challenge: Blame Game
Features: Automated Error Discovery, Application Response Time, Packet Capture and DecodeBefore beginning a project, the analyzer is able to automatically detect network errors and misconfigurations that are impacting network performance. Application performance can be tested and baselined to give an accurate picture of present delays. Field engineers can either include the resolution of these errors in the initial estimate, or give a list of present issues to the customer before work begins. This information will protect the field team from being blamed for pre-existing network issues.
The packet capture and decode feature in ClearSight™ Analyzer on the OptiView XG assists the field team with isolating the problem to the network, server, or application.
Custom hardware on the OptiView ensures lossless line-rate capture – something no laptop or off-the-shelf tablet can do – at speeds up to 10Gbps. ClearSight presents analysis data in a graphical format, clearly showing whether delays are rooted in packet loss (network), slow server response time (server) or bad application calls or responses (application).
ClearSight presents actionable data without forcing the user to understand decodes and wade through millions of packets. This capability is critical in helping to resolve the IT department blame game by getting to the root cause of the problem quickly.
Network Performance Test validates installations, network capacity, and QoS.
Challenge: Validating the Project
Features: Network Performance TestField teams can test and validate network paths at wire-rate speeds up to 10Gbps. The Network Performance Test (NPT) enables them to inject real traffic streams across wide area networks, campuses, or within data centers while measuring their end-to-end performance.
Service providers can make use of the QoS settings within the configured data streams to validate the differentiated services configuration on the carrier infrastructure. The NPT is based on the ITU Y.1564 Ethernet performance testing standard, which provides field teams with a standards-based validation test for proving link quality and integrity in terms of throughput, loss, jitter, latency, availability and QoS.
Reports from these tests can be quickly generated as a deliverable for the customer, showing that the project is delivering the expected results.
The performance test can be used to validate WAN performance, ensure that new data center equipment is delivering the expected results, or to troubleshoot voice quality issues, packet loss and throughput problems across the network.
NAutomated network mapping saves hours of manual labor, instantly creating up-to-the-last-minute documentation.
Features: One-Click Reporting, Visio Maps, Network NavigatorSave hours of manual labor by automatically generating network inventory reports. These reports are created in seconds following the automated discovery process. The OptiView XG enables engineers to auto-generate a Microsoft® Visio drawing of the discovered network, delivering significant time-savings.
Quickly and end-user switch connections with the Network Navigator feature.
Instead of relying on old documentation, or the memory of a local technician, field teams can be sure they have the complete, current picture of the network as it stands today. This documentation also speeds the project and provides the customer with a valuable deliverable. Field teams can generate additional revenue offering network documenting services.
Challenge: Varied Skills, Capabilities and Tools of Field Team
Features: Integrated Wired and Wireless, 10Gbps Analysis Capability, Windows PCThe OptiView XG provides guided workflows that steer the user to the information they need, without needing to be a product expert. Guided troubleshooting tips provide on-the-spot advice regarding observed problems. Even in complex packet-level situations, the onboard ClearSight Analyzer makes a packet analyst out of anyone, guiding them to the root cause of the problem.
The world-class AirMagnet wireless analysis modules come optionally integrated on the OptiView XG, working with the XG’s integrated multiple Wi-Fi radios. These wireless tools include the AirMagnet Wi-Fi Analyzer for troubleshooting wireless performance, AirMagnet SurveyPro for site surveys and coverage and throughput simulation, and finally AirMagnet Spectrum XT for hunting down sources of wireless interference. These wireless tools enable a field engineer to get to the root of WiFi problems without needing to be an RF expert. These tools also speed wireless site surveys and implementations, which is a common project of field teams.
The 10Gbps wired capability of the OptiView XG enables analysis and capture of high-speed data streams. The traffic analysis feature assists in isolating individual applications and conversations, with one-click filtering on target flows.
While OptiView XG’s custom hardware and design provides capabilities well beyond any laptop or tablet, the onboard Windows 7 OS allows the use of other common applications, often eliminating the need for the field engineer to carry a laptop. Email clients, web applications, and other software utilities can be loaded and used on the XG platform.
This unique combination of capabilities all in one tool ensures consistency of service delivery between teams and team members, reduces the number of vendors for support, eliminates multiple user interfaces, and makes the team more efficient with fewer tools.
Challenge: Finding new sources of revenue
Features: Wireless Site Surveys, Network Assessment, Application TroubleshootingThe OptiView XG provides unparalleled visibility and ease of use, enabling field teams to expand their service offering into areas that were never before possible. Network and application performance troubleshooting, enhanced wireless assessments and integration, and automated network assessments become possible for field teams. These services enable an expanded business offering for present and future customers, while reducing the need to sub-contract or decline these projects all together.
Save profiles in Version 12 make analyzer configureation simple and fast.
Conclusion: Make Field Teams Fast, Efficient, ProfitableArmed with an OptiView XG, a field team can unlock critical visibility data on the network which will make them better and faster at their job. No longer will they go into a new network blind, making estimates that cannot account for underlying problems. A network pre-assessment can be run with a click of a button, enabling engineers to ensure no surprises down the road.
Field teams can collect the information they need to guarantee on-budget, on-time completion of projects, which saves their company money and improves customer satisfaction. Costly call-backs can be avoided because installs and service integrations can be validated prior to leaving the site. Engineers are armed with the right data to avoid the blame game, while enabling them to isolate the problem to the right place, fast – network, server, or application.
Expand the power of your Field Team – and your profits – with the OptiView XG Network Analysis Tablet.