Martin Webb has quite a network to look after. With about 4,000 endpoints, it extends all over the province of British Columbia, connecting government offices, schools and pharmacies.“We touch every community,” says Webb, manager data network operations for the Shared Services unit of B.C. Workplace Technology Services.

Formerly known as British Columbia Systems Corp., Workplace Technology Services is part of the Ministry of Labour and Citizen Services. The province-wide network is made up of all kinds of network gear.

“We’ve pretty well adopted just about every type of technology that’s in existence,” Webb says. “We have everything from a leased line … we have ADSL, we have cable modem technologies, we have licensed wireless, unlicensed wireless, free-space optical, and then we go through all the Ethernet-type services.”

With that geographic reach and range of technology, keeping the network running smoothly is a challenge.

What Shared Services wants to do, Webb says, is “get a sense for the end-user experience.” While it’s fairly easy to see if a network link is up or down, it’s less obvious how well the network is performing.

For some time Webb’s group has used NetHealth, from Concord Communications Inc. of Marlboro, Mass., to get a picture of how network usage changes over time, which helps in planning for future capacity and upgrades.

real-time monitoring

More recently, Shared Services began using AppareNet and AppCritical, tools from Vancouver-based Apparent Networks Inc. Webb says AppareNet has helped him pinpoint problems with network performance by letting him see available bandwidth, latency, packet loss and other network characteristics in real time.

In one case, he says, AppareNet helped prove that a radio link wasn’t delivering the bandwidth it should have. Performance was good as long as traffic was light, but as traffic increased, the available bandwidth appeared to decline. Using the testing tool, Webb found that the radios were throttling back traffic to avoid overflowing their buffers.

“Once we articulated that to the vendor,” Webb says, “they understood exactly the performance issue with the radios.”

Especially with the release of Apparent’s newest tool, AppCritical, which builds on the capabilities of AppareNet, Webb says network troubleshooting tools have “matured to what we’re looking for.”

Recently, he used AppCritical and NetHealth to monitor a misbehaving ADSL connection into a school. As the service provider made various changes to the configuration, Webb observed the link’s performance in real time, which made it possible to narrow down the source of the problem to the last 90 meters of cable into the building.

Shared Services has done some limited work on voice over IP, deploying it to 10 locations in Vancouver so far. Pre-deployment network assessment is the responsibility of the service provider, Telus Corp., Webb says.

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