Network Alarm Monitoring Fundamentals

Part 1: The Basics of Network Alarm Monitoring
Part 2: What Do You Need to Monitor?
Part 3: How Do You Monitor It?
Part 4: How Do You Monitor It? (continued..)
Part 5: How to Plan Your Alarm Monitoring Upgrade

Part 1: The Basics of Network Alarm Monitoring

You've just been put in charge of purchasing, selecting or recommending a new network alarm system for your company. Where do you start? What alarm equipment do you need? What monitoring features are essential, and which can you live without? How can you make sure your network is fully protected, without spending too much on equipment you won't use?

This White Paper is a quick guide to how you can answer these questions for yourself. This paper will NOT tell you, "Just buy this system and everything will be fine." Every network is different. A one-size-fits-all system won't provide the specific coverage you need and may cost more money than you really need to spend.

Instead, this White Paper will show you the right questions to ask. Before you can decide what alarm system to buy, you need to analyze your network and determine its specific monitoring needs. Figuring out what you really need your alarm system to do is your first step to designing a "perfect fit" system - one that's custom-designed for your network equipment, your available data transport ... and your budget, too.

The 3 Step Plan for Creating a Perfect Fit Alarm System
This White Paper will take you through the same 3 steps that you would receive from any professional network consultant:

  1. Survey where you are now: What alarm monitoring do you currently use, if any? What equipment do you need to monitor? What data transport is available in your network?
  2. Define your monitoring goals: What would your ideal alarm system - the alarm system that does everything you need and want - look like? Do you need 24/7 pager and email notification? Do you want to integrate several different alarm systems onto one user interface?
  3. Plan your alarm system upgrade: How do you get from where you are now to where you want to be? Is upgrading at once feasible and within your budget, or should you phase your upgrade over several budget cycles? What alarm capabilities do you need right now, and which can wait?

Start Here: Network and Remote Site Survey
Your first step to get your alarm monitoring upgrade rolling is a complete survey of your current network and remote sites. This survey will document your existing alarm monitoring situation, in order to build a road map for your upgrade.

In your site survey, you're looking for three things:

  • The equipment you need to monitor and the number of alarm points you'll need to monitor it.
  • The currently available data transport between your remote sites and your Network Operations Center (NOC) - the office where your alarm presentation master is located.
  • Any existing alarm collection and presentation equipment you already have. You may be able to save money by incorporating your existing alarm equipment into your new, upgraded alarm system.
  • Plan for your needs for the next five years. Your network and your monitoring needs will grow, and an alarm system that can't grow with them will be obsolete as soon as it's installed.

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Part 2: What Do You Need to Monitor?

It takes a lot of equipment working together correctly to keep your network running, and you need accurate information about every element involved.
That means monitoring not only your base telecom equipment, but also all the equipment that supports it and the environmental conditions that all your equipment requires to operate correctly.

The things you need to monitor fall into four categories:

  1. Telecom and transport equipment: switches, routers, SONET equipment, fiber optic equipment, microwave radios, etc.
  2. Power supplies: commercial AC power, battery plants, rectifiers, backup generators, UPS systems, etc.
    Monitor your power supplies as thoroughly as possible - power outages are the most common cause of remote site failures. Just as your power supply has multiple fail-safes and backup systems, every one of those backups should be monitored.
    At the basic level, you must monitor commercial power availability and battery levels. Getting more advanced, it's also a good idea to monitor rectifiers and generators, including whether the generators perform their regular self-start tests. If you want the earliest possible warning of any problem that might interrupt your power supply, monitor every link in the power supply chain, right down to the fuel levels in generator diesel tanks.
  3. Building and facility alarms: intrusion, entry, open door, fire, smoke, flooding, etc.
    It's vital to monitor the physical safety of the buildings that house your essential equipment. Since remote sites are usually unmanned and often in isolated locations, they're highly vulnerable to vandals and intruders. Accidents like short circuits and small electrical fires, even if they're small, can become disasters if you don't have any way to detect them and intervene in time.
    Your facility monitoring should begin with at least monitoring open doors and fire alarms. For added security, you may want to consider integrating an electronic building access control system and video surveillance to your alarm system.
  4. Environmental conditions: temperature, humidity, etc.
    Most electronic equipment operates best within a defined range of temperature and humidity - monitoring these factors will give you early warning of potential problems.
    You'll probably want to monitor different environmental conditions, depending on the physical location of the remote site. If the remote site is in a desert, humidity might not be a concern to you, but temperature probably will be. On the other hand, if your remote site has to function through an Iowa summer, humidity may be a major concern to you.
    Another consideration is the sensitivity of your equipment. If it's rated to operate under extreme ranges of temperature and humidity, you won't have to monitor environmental factors quite so closely, but you'll still want to make sure the site stays within the range specified for your equipment.
    If your remote site is an environmentally controlled facility, you have a different set of factors to worry about. You need to monitor the continued operation of the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) equipment that maintains the facility environment, plus you must be sure to monitor the power supply to the HVAC system. On top of that, you should still monitor temperature and humidity, as another safety check to make sure the HVAC is doing its job.

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Part 3: How Do You Monitor It?

Now that you have an idea of what you should be monitoring, your next consideration is the nuts and bolts of how you are going to monitor it.

Gemeral Principles for Selecting What to Monitor
In the perfect alarm system of your dreams, you'll have an alarm for every single factor that can affect network operations, but you'll never spend extra money on alarm capacity you don't need. In the real world, time and budget constraints usually mean you have to set priorities and carefully select which alarms you're going to monitor.

  • Paranoia is your friend. Think about everything that can possibly go wrong, because - guaranteed - someday it will.
  • The more detailed your monitoring, the smaller your windshield time and repair costs. Precise diagnostics help you send the right tech with the right tools to the right site.
  • It's OK to start small and scale up. If you get an alarm system that can be upgraded, you can start monitoring your most critical network elements now, and gradually add more monitoring over several budget cycles.
  • Plan for your needs for the next five years. Your network and your monitoring needs will grow, and an alarm system that can't grow with them will be obsolete as soon as it's installed.

There are three phases to alarm monitoring: acquisition, transport and presentation. Let's look at each phase in order.

Acquisition: Getting Alarms Out of Your Equipment
There are three kinds of alarm inputs: contact closures, analog inputs and protocol inputs.

  • Contact Closures
    Contact closures are also called discrete alarms or digital inputs. A contact closure is a simple on/off switch that produces an electrical impulse when it's activated or deactivated. Contact closures are the simplest kind of alarm input, so they're often used as a kind of lowest-common-denominator means of getting some kind of alarm from any kind of equipment.
  • Analog Inputs
    Analog inputs accept current or voltage level inputs over a continuous range. They're the ideal kind of alarm for monitoring things like temperature and battery charge, where it's important to get an actual, physical measurement of the condition in real time.
    Here's where having a quality alarm system really counts. Some alarm systems simulate analog alarms with "threshold" alarms. For example, you might get a low-battery alarm if the battery voltage drops to -48 volts. But that information by itself is meaningless. After the voltage crosses the -48 volt-threshold, does it stay there (indicating that the battery is merely low) or does it continue to drop (indicating that the battery is being rapidly drained)? With threshold alarms, you have no way to tell.
    DPS Telecom alarm equipment features analog alarms that report live, real-time analog values, giving you true visibility of these kinds of alarm conditions. Additionally, DPS analog alarms support four user-configurable thresholds (Major Under, Minor Under, Minor Over and Major Over), to provide best-quality notification of changing events.
  • Protocol Inputs
    Protocol inputs are electrical signals formatted into a formal code that can represent much more complex information than contact closures or analogs. There's a wide variety of protocols for transmitting telecom alarm data. The most common telemetry protocols are open standards like SNMP, TL1, ASCII and TBOS, but there are also manufacturer-specific proprietary protocols. SNMP, TL1 and ASCII are simply ways of encoding ordinary written text for electronic transmission; these protocols are human-readable, if you know the code's terminology and operators.

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Part 4: How Do You Monitor It? (continued..)

Acquiring Alarm Data from Telecom and Transport Equipment
Unfortunately, there's no standard alarm output for switches, routers, SONET equipment and other telecom and transport gear. You'll have to check each type of transport equipment in your network to see what kind of alarms it supports.

The best way to find out what kind of alarming your equipment can do is to check the documentation supplied by the manufacturer. The documentation should have at least a short section describing the equipment's alarm outputs.

Ideally, your equipment will support some kind of protocol interface, giving you detailed visibility of its internal operations. But your equipment may only support contact closure outputs, which - depending on how many contact closures it has - may only give you a handful of summary alarms.

However, if your equipment doesn't have a documented protocol output, check it for a printer port, a report-only printer (ROP) port or a craft port. This port is designed to output a detailed log of equipment activity in the form of an ASCII text stream.

Historically, this ASCII output port was originally intended to connect to a printer for producing activity log printouts. A printout is a great way to keep a detailed record of what has happened in the past, but it's not a good way to monitor what's happening right now.

However, T/Mon provides a way to turn that ASCII stream into actionable, real-time alarm data. T/Mon's optional ASCII Processor Software Module can automatically capture ASCII text, extract important information from the text stream, and convert the text to a standard T/Mon alarm notification.

Acquiring Power, Facility, and Environmental Alarms
Power, facility and environmental alarms are collected by groups of individual sensors connected to site equipment like battery plants, generators, doors, temperature sensors and so on.

Outputs from these sensors are in turn connected to a remote telemetry unit (RTU) that converts contact closure and analog inputs into a protocol output, which is forwarded to your alarm presentation master.

Every model of RTU has a defined capacity of how many contact closure and analog inputs it supports. The alarm capacity of your RTU is the limiting factor for how much alarm information you can acquire from your remote site. You don't want an RTU that has too little alarm capacity, because that will give you only vague and incomplete information about the state of the remote site. On the other hand, you don't want to pay for unneeded alarm capacity, either.

Your remote site survey will help you determine the correct alarm capacity for each type of remote site in your network. It's also a good idea to look for an RTU whose alarm capacity can be easily upgraded. An RTU with expansion capability will grow with your remote site without your having to buy entirely new equipment.

Transport: Getting Your Alarms from the Site to Your Screen
Once alarm data collected at your remote sites, it needs to be transmitted over a data network to your alarm presentation master at your NOC. Alarm data can be sent over nearly any kind of data transport: Ethernet LAN/WAN, dial-up modem, dedicated circuit, overhead channel, etc.

There are two things you should keep in mind about alarm data transport:

As much as possible, you want to work with transports that are already available in your network. You don't want to create added expenses by committing yourself to installing new network infrastructure. It's best to choose an alarm system that's compatible with the transports you already have.

It's a good idea to have a secondary backup path for your alarm data in case your primary path fails. No transport is 100% reliable, and you don't want to lose alarm visibility of your revenue-generating network under any circumstances.

Presentation: Displaying Your Alarms in an Actionable Format
The final phase in alarm monitoring is presenting the alarm data in a useful way so that a human being can read the information and use it to direct repairs. This is done through a specialized computer called an alarm presentation master. The master collects the alarm reports from RTUs at the remote site and then formats, sorts and displays the information for a human operator.

The master is really the most important part of the entire alarm system. For the NOC technicians who monitor alarms and dispatch repairs, the master IS the alarm system - it's the only window they have to see what's going on in the network. The features and capabilities of your alarm master directly control how much useful information your NOC techs can see. A high-quality, full-featured alarm master gives you the tools to substantially lower your network maintenance costs.

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Part 5: How to Plan Your Alarm Monitoring Upgrade

Relying on off-the-shelf SNMP systems for mission-critical telemetry is a major mistake. If you're switching from traditional telemetry or integrating non-SNMP monitoring with an SNMP-based system, an off-the-shelf SNMP manager will not provide the detailed alarm data you expect. Before you commit to an SNMP monitoring solution, you need to make sure it supports essential network alarm monitoring functions.

In the previous sections, you've seen what equipment you should monitor and what features a good alarm system should have. So you should have some sense of what would be the ideal alarm system that will give you the best possible visibility of your network.

The question is, how do you get from where you are to where you want to be? It's very rare for a company to be able to suddenly leap from their current alarm monitoring to their ideal system. Budget restrictions and the cost of installing equipment means you can't usually get everything you want in one budget year.

Here are some strategies that will help you find a smooth, gradual upgrade path that will let you transition to a new alarm system over several budget cycles:

  • Define your immediate monitoring needs:
    What are the essential alarm monitoring capabilities that you must have today? What critical equipment do you absolutely have to monitor right now?
    Keep in mind, your definition of an immediate, essential need might be different than someone else's. For example, if you have the staff to keep an eye on an alarm screen 24/7, you might not need pager notification. But if you need to manage critical network assets during unmanned after-hours and weekend times, paging is an essential capability.
  • Start slow, then expand: Once you've taken care of your bare minimum needs, you can add more alarm capacity and more monitoring capabilities over several budget cycles. You don't have to spend more than you can afford in one budget year, but you'll gradually move toward your ideal system.
  • Use protocol mediation to incorporate existing equipment:The first stages of your upgrade can be easier and more cost-effective if you can install a new alarm master first, and then gradually replace RTUs at your remote sites. An alarm master with multiprotocol support can support your existing remotes, so you can immediately add new presentation capabilities without replacing all your remote site equipment.
  • Keep your future goals in mind:
    While you're planning your expansion, think about what your monitoring needs are likely to be 5, 10, 15 years down the road. It's easier and more cost-effective to add alarm capacity in a controlled way in the immediate future than to rush a new deployment through when you've exceeded your alarm capacity.

What to Do Next

Before you make a decision about your SNMP monitoring, there's a lot more you need to know. There are dangers you want to avoid - and there are also opportunities to improve your remote site maintenance that you don't want to miss.

DPS Telecom Guarantees Your Success - or Your Money Back

When you're choosing a network monitoring vendor, don't take chances. Be skeptical. Ask the hard questions. Above all, look for experience. Don't take a sales rep's word that his company can do custom development. Ask how many systems they've worked with, how many protocols they can integrate with DNP3, and check for client testimonials. DPS Telecom has created hundreds of successful monitoring implementations for telecoms, utilities, and transportation companies. (Check out http://www.dpstelecom.com/dpsnews/success_stories for some examples.) DPS Telecom monitoring solutions are proven performers under real-world conditions. You're never taking any risk when you work with DPS Telecom. Your SNMP monitoring solution is backed by a 30-day, no-risk, money-back guarantee. Test your DPS monitoring solution at your site for 30 days. If you're dissatisfied for any reason, just send it back for a full refund.

Get the information you need. Send an e-mail to support@dpstelecom.com for "A Practical, Step-by-Step Guide" on how to implement SNMP monitoring in your network. You can also call us today at 1-800-622-3314 to schedule your free Web demo of SNMP monitoring solutions, or register on the Web at www.dpstelecom.com/tmon-webdemo.

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