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Why remote testing can provide businesses with an edge

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Chris O’Conor, regional VP, service provider sales at HUBER+SUHNER Polatis, explains why remote testing can provide businesses with the edge they never knew they needed – until now.

Over the years, the term ‘service provider’ has come to encompass a broad range of organisations, from traditional wireless and wireline telephone companies to Multi-System CATV Operators (MSO) and data centre providers, including those in the hyperscale community. 

With the scope of organisations expanding, so too are the types of services that they offer – but one thing that they have in common is that they all carry mission-critical data across their networks. 

Built to the highest standard, these networks rely heavily on the verification and reliability of even the smallest components. By testing systems in a host of real-world configurations alongside performance measuring equipment, service providers can ensure that secure customer experience and high service quality are achieved.

Testing also allows providers to troubleshoot issues by simulating specific network conditions, or quickly alpha test new services and the effect they may have on the current network. 

Testing requires the ability to quickly change most aspects of the network topology, but what happens when the test engineers are not able to work in the confined spaces of the network lab?

Automation is more important than ever

The ongoing pandemic has taught us just how important it is for companies across all industries to have remote operation capability. This is particularly crucial for businesses that rely on new, certified equipment for day-to-day activities, where a delay in testing could cause year-long delays in the deployment of new services.

The close confines of test laboratories make it difficult to comply with worldwide social distancing requirements, reducing accessibility for test lab engineers to manually patch each device, measure power readings and clean all fibres to the test equipment. This, in turn, impacts upon the testing of new devices prior to network deployment. The longer it takes to certify new equipment and services, the further away the goals for increased revenue and a competitive edge become. 

What was once considered a luxury, could now be your greatest asset

As networks migrate rapidly to line rates of 400 Gbps and beyond, more connected devices come online. As such, the industry pushes for Network Function Virtualisation (NFV) and Software Defined Networking (SDN), putting organisations under intense pressure to test and deliver enhanced network services. 

With technology advancements and the industry moving towards a more virtualised environment, traditional network test labs will face added pressure. All SDN-enabled components will require re-certification to confirm interoperability in the new dynamic environment, and lab operators will need to adapt to meet these increasing demands. 

In today’s ever-changing business climate, the automation of test infrastructure and resources is vital to increase test capacity while reducing costs – enabling fast, repeatable and agile lab operations that are crucial to reducing time to market.

While lab automation is not a new concept, many have fallen short of its benefits due to lack of investment in personnel, resources or simply awareness in the company or the advantages that a well-run automated lab can bring. 

The goal of a perfectly running network has driven providers to test all components before deployment – not just when introducing a new service or component, but also when first received from a vendor to confirm its individual performance compared to the specification. This results in a high number of tests and numerous cross connects. 

Automated labs result in lower costs and reduced timescales

In many organisations, the cross connect function is outsourced to a subcontractor or another group within the company, generating a chargeback. These charges often result in long wait times and, almost a third of the time, the resultant circuit is completed incorrectly, causing further delays. 

With automation, labs can share expensive equipment and reconfigure tests remotely. Using readily available tools, resources can be shared securely between silos without conflict, allowing 24-hour global access to test equipment. Previously, this fight for resources would often interrupt testing and gridlock the schedule. 

Problem resolution is also accelerated. An automated lab has an efficient method to cross connect any network component within minutes, rather than hours or days. This level of dynamic connectivity cuts down on network troubleshooting and resolves issues in a fraction of the time compared to the traditional method. 

By adopting remote switching and related tools, lab engineers can reduce test times by 40% on the first run and close to 75% on repetitive tests, with zero manual intervention. Coupled with an ROI model of roughly 18 months, a switch which may seem initially expensive is easily justified when the reduction in staff or payments of subcontractor fees are considered – making a very compelling case for organisations to adopt a more automated approach in the future. 

Evolution is critical to the survival of test labs

The move from a traditional to an automated lab environment is not as difficult as lab managers may think. Perhaps the biggest hurdle faced is the technological investment – making a partner in the CFO Office essential. 

Though the costs associated with lab automation are usually not in the budget, the savings that they offer far outweigh the investment. The group also needs mindshare from the whole organisation to be successful; after all, when a company looks to implement an automated lab, it is likely to result in a reduction of staff or subcontractor fees. 

Once these obstacles are overcome, there are several specialised software companies with a focus on providing Lab-as-a-Service solutions: choosing the right one for your company is key. These programmes create the environment that allows for reservations of lab resources, the running of test procedures and the documentation of test results.

A successful automated lab also requires a reliable all-optical fibre switch to provide the dynamic foundation for the lab network. A fibre switch allows the equipment cabling to be implemented just once, so all subsequent tests can be remotely configured on demand. 

This one-time cabling installation protects lab results from potential fibre hygiene issues, creating more repeatable and reliable results. Working with the integration software, the switch provides partitioned testing environments, allowing multiple groups within a company to run tests simultaneously, saving time and money. 

With the ability to be transparent to any optical speed, circuit type and wavelength, all-optical switching offers future-proofing to preserve the initial investment as line rates and transmission formats continue to advance. 

The ‘new normal’ calls for preparation for the future

With ongoing uncertainty about the continued impact on today’s work environment, the adoption of innovative solutions that allow remote testing orchestration has never been so critical. What was once considered a luxury, is now a requirement as the current situation emphasises the inherent need for remote lab management. 

By adapting to a more automated lab environment, organisations can continue to operate as normal to ensure the timely completion of projects and leverage a geographically diverse workforce for a follow-the-sun approach to network service testing and development – allowing them to work across multiple test topologies simultaneously without concern for conflict. 

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