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A look at Network Performance Enforcement in action

I spoke with a company that has embraced a new type of solution for managing network performance and security.

I recently had a chance to talk to Michael Mason, head of new technologies at Phonoscope Lightwave, about how his company is using a new category of product called Network Performance Enforcement (NPE) to improve the quality of the services delivered to its customers. At its core, NPE acts as a superset of WAN optimization, quality of service, network policy control, and analytics.

Phonoscope provides data services for some of the most demanding and globally active customers in the Houston market. They deliver Internet and Ethernet circuits over a layer 2, switched optical fiber network. Their optical fiber ring provides sub-2ms latency within their network to satisfy even their most demanding customer application needs, servicing customers with bandwidth of 10 Mbps up to 100 GbE. Phonoscope's customers span a variety of verticals, including energy, financial services, healthcare, government, and education. All are grappling with network congestion due to increased high-bandwidth applications, users, and devices – with the real potential for applications crashing and stalling during peak periods. The company is also dealing with increasing user complaints about the global risk the Internet poses from external sources and unwitting internal sources. 

Many of Phonoscope's customers have been very aggressive with their increased use of consumer devices, causing new traffic flows and bandwidth requirements and adding an entirely new dimension to traffic activities on top of a very challenging environment. After evaluating various tools, they made the decision to deploy Saisei's FlowCommand NPE. Last year I wrote about Saisei's NPE solution, which takes advantage of a patented flow-control technology to significantly improve the way IP networks operate under heavy data loads, ultimately allowing enterprises and service providers to achieve new levels of visibility and real-time network control.

In one of Phonoscope's most recent deployments, it placed the Saisei NPE solution on the VLANs on both sides of the firewall to see all of the flows to and from the customer. Phonoscope is now able to quickly identify applications or devices that consume large quantities of bandwidth through pre-determined application fingerprints and unique signatures. Phonoscope uses this information to automatically identify and isolate traffic flows. In addition to the ability to manage traffic, the security posture is improved as well by understanding where traffic is coming from and then blocking all inbound flows from known attacking countries, preventing malicious traffic from ever reaching their customer.

Mason told me that the ability to see traffic at a flow level now gives his network operations team the ability to solve some previously vexing network challenges. The improved visibility, for example, provides insight into what is "really" happening on the networking instead of having to take educated guesses. 

The improved visibility from NPE can also be used to measure traffic, set benchmarks, and spot trends before they become a disaster. ZK Research data shows that the end user and not the IT department discover 75% of application performance problems (disclosure: I am an employee of ZK Research). Flow-based visibility can reverse this trend by giving the network operations team the data to move to a more proactive management model.

Phonoscope's optimized network has also improved the performance of real-time traffic. In my interview with Mason, he expressed to me that IP phone and video traffic had been erratic in the past, but now both are crystal clear. The increased dependency on collaboration tools has made quality voice and video over IP mission-critical for most customers. The combination of improved utilization and superior application performance gives Phonoscope an advantage based on service quality in a highly competitive market where price usually wins out.

With the latest evolution of network activities, it's become apparent that IT leaders have to understand what's actually happening on their networks in real time. Today, the minimum requirement is to have real-time visibility and the tools to identify and act against threats to performance and security. The scary part is that networks may appear to be performing just fine until there is a breach. New threats, such as TCP probing attacks, tend to act "low and slow" and slip under the radar of many legacy network traffic analyzer tools that typically act only on sampled data (or flows). As I've stated in the past, NPE provides the ability to immediately see all the flows on the network displayed in a comprehensive set of views that makes it obvious when there are issues. Phonoscope has used this capability to see performance levels as well as security risks.

Real-time visibility, control, and enforcement are all must-have additions to the IT person's toolkit, as well as something the C-level can view and understand while giving them the confidence of knowing how their network is performing on a daily basis. A growing group of IT leaders are looking to take a similar approach to what Mike Mason at Phonoscope did and invest in new technologies to maximize the performance of their networks.

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