2019 may be the year of “peak Unified Communications.” Unified communications (UC) solutions like Slack, Skype, Webex and dozens of others are great for business productivity, but extremely difficult to troubleshoot at locations outside of a company’s headquarters. Without visibility into UC network traffic at these distributed locations, network operations (NetOps) teams can’t troubleshoot connectivity problems like latency and congestion, leading to frustration, decreased employee productivity, upset customers, and ultimately loss of revenue for organizations. Luckily a solution to this issue is finally starting to emerge in the form of low-cost monitoring solutions for remote locations.
Think of how many different unified communications services the average office worker uses on a daily basis. They may sit down at their desk, check their email and internal chat messages on Office 365 and Slack, and then dial in to a team conference call via Webex or GoToMeeting. After the call they might access a presentation deck they just watched using SharePoint or Zoho, and then check their daily to-do list. That’s half a dozen different services and it’s not even 10:00 am! The UC market is predicted to grow at a CAGR of 16.8% until 2024, while Gartner predicts that the North American UCaaS market for midsize enterprises will grow from $1.5 billion in 2017 to roughly $2.8 billion by 2021. Clearly the gold rush of UC services is not going to slow down anytime soon.
This growth causes problems for IT teams because the traffic for all these apps no longer passes through the corporate headquarters, where NetOps has strong visibility. Instead, these web-based or hosted apps are reaching out from remote offices directly to the Internet. That means that IT can’t predict or detect when these applications are having problems and doesn’t have the visibility necessary to fix them. This is a serious issue for businesses, because voice, video and telepresence applications are quite sensitive to network issues.
Here are some of the problems that UC applications commonly experience:
- Jitter: When packets for video conferencing services arrive late or out of order, the picture breaks up and there’s a delay that makes it difficult to have a conversation. These issues are especially common with telepresence apps, and the Webex family in particular. In my career in IT technology, the most common question I get from customers researching network monitoring is how to monitor Webex!
- Lag: Packet latency also affects VoIP and voice-only teleconference calls. These applications have a low threshold for latency and even small delays of 50 to 100 milliseconds make it nearly impossible to carry out a conversation, as participants begin talking over one another.
- Congestion: Teleconferencing apps are so bandwidth-intensive that they can overwhelm a less-powerful network. This wasn’t an issue when voice and video was a small percentage of network traffic, but as companies do more teleconferencing, multiple voice and video calls at once can quickly take up all the available bandwidth and degrade call performance. Even setting up QoS policies won’t help if you have a dozen calls all happening at the same time – the network will get overloaded.
How big is the UC performance problem?
These problems not only frustrate employees and cause them to be less productive, but they can also derail relationships with customers and potential sales opportunities. Increasing numbers of businesses are using telepresence applications to offer services to customers. Take remote medical appointments or live video training sessions. If these services don’t work smoothly, they could easily have a negative impact on the business’ bottom line.
UC performance issues might seem like a problem mainly for large enterprises, with hundreds of locations and thousands of employees, but that’s not actually true. From IT’s perspective, a “remote office” is any location outside of the corporate headquarters and data center. This applies to distributed enterprises like banks and stores that have dozens or hundreds of individual locations, but also to small and mid-sized companies that have a handful of separate offices. Some of these locations, like engineering offices or call centers, can be incredibly important to the business! UC services are so widespread that even small companies use dozens of UC tools. A lack of visibility into the traffic at remote locations can prove to be a major issue for businesses of any size.
The traditional way to troubleshoot these issues has been to send an IT worker from headquarters to the remote site having the problem. This is quite expensive and takes up time that could otherwise be spent on different IT projects, but until recently there hasn’t been an alternative. Most network performance monitoring and diagnostic (NPMD) products are simply too expensive for an enterprise to put one in each branch location or for an SMB to afford.
How to ensure UC performance for your business
The good news is that more affordable monitoring products are beginning to hit the market. These solutions can be installed in remote offices to monitor traffic on site and send metadata back to HQ for analysis. For example, an engineer could look at the display in a Network Operation Center and see a large number of alerts coming from a specific office telling them that Webex application response times are exceeding the 50-millisecond threshold they set. Now they know to expect some calls from that office complaining about Webex latency and can start working on the problem in advance. The most useful network performance management products will also save packet data on site for advanced troubleshooting. IT can use that data to see where those delays are coming from, if they are hitting a specific server, which part of a call it is from, and more. I cannot recommend packet data enough as a resource for detailed analysis and troubleshooting.
With more NPMD solutions starting to offer options for accessible remote office monitoring, I am optimistic that IT can gain better visibility into UC traffic at remote offices and mitigate many of these issues. With enough time and effort, some businesses might even make choppy video calls a thing of the past!
Jay Botelho is the Director of Engineering at LiveAction.