Spirent demonstrates that “More for less, faster” is achievable - in network testing at least

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As an analyst I find that real insights and “ah-ha” moments often come from unlikely and unexpected sources. Recently, I had a briefing with Phil Thompson, VP, Client Partner Executive at Spirent Communications which provides network equipment testing and network service assurance products and services to all the world’s major Communications Service Providers (CSPs). Ostensibly we were to be reviewing Spirent’s test automation strategy and the impact it has had on energy efficiency in test labs of the large CSPs. Worthy, but hardly an inspiring topic. However, it was one that delivered some real insights.

Over the past couple of years, I have been on a bit of a journey regarding network performance management (NPM). Rather than coming at the topic from a vendor and product perspective I started at the digital user experience and business outcome end of the value chain and worked backwards, trying to understand the issues, challenges and solutions in a rapidly changing, increasingly business critical, cloud and software defined networking world. A year ago, I was talking to Spirent about its Network Service Assurance offering, VisionWorks and got an understanding of the importance of active network testing in providing additional assurance over and above traditional NPM tools. Now I was right down at the functional testing of network equipment phase.

Increasingly, I have grown concerned that the digital economy mantra of “do more for less, faster” was resulting in serious quality risks. Automation is clearly seen as one of the key technology enablers, but in and of itself doesn’t guarantee quality outcomes. So, when Phil wanted to show how automation was saving energy (and other) costs and speeding up the testing process I must confess to having started with a slightly sceptical view.

Most readers of my blogs will have little understanding of, or interest in, the minutiae of the functional test processes on networks and network equipment. Suffice it to say, the tests are rigorous, which is good news, but the processes to conduct them haven’t really changed in 20 years, are manual, time consuming and costly, which is definitely a problem in today’s business environment where time to market is so important. Spirent can automate this process using its Velocity solution, and the results can be dramatic, as demonstrated by what happened at US based CSP, Calix. There, Velocity helped Calix reduce complex network test set-ups from 50 hours to 10 minutes…a 300x improvement.

So, that covers the “more, faster” part, but what about “for less”. The time savings can be translated into a saving on the number of test engineers required by a factor of between 3 to 1 and 10 to 1. That might not lead directly to a reduction in workforce as engineers can be moved to other productive work. This is useful when technical skills are in short supply. However, the energy savings are real. Energy costs are in the spotlight, for obvious reasons. Vodafone’s latest quarterly report highlighted increased energy costs of $300 million in the current fiscal year.

A test lab is one small corner of an organisation’s costs, but the process inefficiencies around energy usage that Velocity highlights, if replicated widely across the enterprise, could add up to very significant savings. Under old manual test processes Spirent found that labs with, say 200 servers, were leaving them all the time even though their actual usage could be as low as 10%. The automatic scheduling of tests in Velocity and the rapid automated cleaning of systems between tests enabled servers, linked to Velocity, to be automatically turned on and off as required. I suppose it was the inefficiency in the old system I found so eye opening. Now, you have to ask where else can automation be deployed to really eat into those energy costs and save the planet?

In keeping with the move to the cloud, Spirent offer testing-as-a-service solutions and a range of other support and professional services packages, delivered globally with the help of an extensive partner network. At the same time, its Service Assurance solution has had to keep abreast of DevOps Continuous Development, Continuous Testing, Continuous Implementation and Integration methodologies in a more layered and complex software-defined, containerised environment. Turns out, automated testing is not only worthy, but also pretty inspiring.