Local telecom shortens level 1 help-desk calls by harnessing NetFlow monitoring

Michael Morisy News Writer
14 Jul 2008

For years level 1 help-desk agents at regional service provider EATEL were flying blind in support calls about degraded or slow service. They would spend half an hour troubleshooting problems by going down a checklist: Restart the computer reset the router reset the modem.

Often it was the customer's own activity to blame: BitTorrent was a common culprit for slow speeds as was hardware hijacked by botnets.

'Worst-case scenario is if we're not able to resolve it over the phone. We dispatch a technician ' said Harris Miller data engineering manager with the Gonzales Louisiana-based service provider. Even then the on-site technician might miss the issue if the user were not downloading BitTorrent files at the time. And those fruitless trips were expensive.

Last December EATEL found a solution to this problem when it began testing Xangati's Virtual Task Manager an update to its popular Rapid Problem Identification (RPI) appliance. Miller said that in the few months they have been using it service trips have been cut by 25% and call times have been reduced as well.

Virtual Task Manager makes NetFlow monitoring available to level 1 help-desk agents through a simplified browser-based application.

NetFlow is Cisco's widely used network protocol that captures traffic information like the source and destination of IP packets as well as their protocol.

Xangati's appliance measures how much bandwidth applications consume and then identifies them by protocol whether it's a movie download or a gaming session.

'Even if it can't categorize the traffic [Virtual Task Manager] lets us dig in a little deeper ' Miller said. Xangati also lets a wide variety of employees do that digging without extensive training.

'We had more sophisticated tools [that] our IP engineers could use … but nothing scaled down to where a support rep could effectively use it ' he said.

EATEL already owned one network visibility appliance but Miller said promises for an upgraded dashboard for that appliance were never fulfilled. The ability to extend monitoring capabilities to the help-desk agents while giving the network engineers easier tools to work with made the purchase a solid investment according to Miller.

'The challenge of identifying what the problem is has really changed dramatically [in the network] ' said Jim Metzler vice president of Sanibel Fla.-based consultancy Ashton Metzler & Associates. Service problems aren't always caused by network issues such as a dead router or mis-configured switch. Now users are causing networking at the endpoint with bandwidth-greedy applications such as file sharing.

'These days if an application is degrading almost anything could be the cause of it ' Metzler said. Properly configured NetFlow monitoring can give a clearer idea of what is going on.

Xangati's focus on rapid problem identification is well suited to this challenge he said particularly in cutting call times and getting everyone back to work more quickly.

Before jumping into a solution however organizations should have a clear idea of what they want various support levels to do Metzler said. For many companies giving level 1 help-desk agents deeper diagnostic data could be a great cost saver. Others might want to reserve those functions for higher-level support keeping level 1 focused on properly routing trouble tickets.

Another concern is a potential privacy backlash Miller said something EATEL takes very seriously.

'We ask for permission to run this connection when they call up ' he said. 'We tell them we're only looking at headers not payload.' NetFlow can identify that a customer is sending email for example but not that the email is to Aunt Bessy about her secret family clambake recipe.

So far Miller said these explanations have been enough to stave off concerns. EATEL also has the Xangati appliance alert the provider to irregular connection patterns which could be a virus infection for example.

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