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Tutorial: What is Telemetry in Networking?

Have you been put in charge of finding a new telemetry system for your company?

Where do you start? What telemetry equipment do you need? What monitoring features are key, and which can you live without? How can you make sure your network is fully protected, without spending money on equipment you won't use?

A telemetry system protects remote site equipment and reduces windshield time.
A good telemetry system will reduce the time your team wastes on maintenance, improve their decisions, and slash wasted expense from equipment damage and downtime.

What is Telemetry in Networking?

We define telemetry as the process of collecting data from equipment and reporting it to your Network Operations Center (NOC). Telemetry allows your central station operators to respond to alarm events from remote sources.

Every network is different. A universal system won't provide the single coverage you need, and may cost more money than you really need to spend.

Before you can decide what telemetry system to buy, you need to analyze your network and determine its single monitoring needs. Figuring out what you really need your telemetry system to do is your first step to designing a "perfect fit" system. A perfect fit system is one that's custom-designed for your network equipment, your available data transport - and your budget.

Start Here: Network and Remote Site Survey

Your first step to getting your telemetry upgrade rolling is a complete survey of your current network and remote sites. This survey will document your existing telemetry situation, in order to build a road map for your upgrade.

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

  1. The equipment that needs constant monitoring and the number of alarm points you'll need to monitor it.
  2. The currently available transmission of data method between your remote sites and your NOC.
  3. Any existing alarm collection and presentation equipment you already have. You may be able to save money by incorporating your existing telemetry equipment into your new, upgraded telemetry system.

What Do You Need to Monitor?

Monitor generator
Backups generators should be monitored using telemetry.

It takes a lot of equipment working together to keep your network running. You need accurate, detailed information about everything involved.

That means monitoring not only your base telecom equipment but also all the equipment that supports it. This typically includes environmental conditions, building access and power. All things necessary for your equipment to operate correctly.

The necessary things you need to monitor fall into four categories:

1. Telecom and transport equipment: routers, switches, SONET equipment, fiber optic equipment, microwave radios, etc.

Don't settle for monitoring your revenue-generating equipment with alarms that only tell you when the equipment is up or down. Ideally, you want a broad series of alarms that identify problems down to the card level.

2. Power supplies: commercial AC power, battery plants, rectifiers, backup generators, UPS systems, etc.

Monitor your power supplies as wholly 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, each of those backups should be monitored.

At the basic level, you must monitor commercial power and battery level. 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, monitor every link in the power supply chain. This includes the fuel levels in generator diesel tanks.

3. Building and facility telemetry: intrusion, entry, open door, fire, smoke, flooding, etc.

It's vital to monitor the safety of the buildings that house your key equipment. Since remote sites are usually unmanned and often in isolated locations, they're more at risk to vandals and intruders. Short circuits and small electrical fires can become disasters if you don't have any way to detect them.

Your site monitoring should begin with at least monitoring open doors and fire alarms. For more security, you may want to consider adding a building access control system 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 location of the remote site. If the remote site is in a desert, humidity might not be a concern to you, but the temperature probably will be. Or, if your remote site has to function through a Georgia summer, humidity is a major concern to you.

Another factor is the staying power of your equipment. If it's rated to operate under extreme conditions, you won't have to monitor environmental factors quite so closely. You'll still want to make sure the site stays within the range specified for your equipment, though.

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. Also, you must be sure to monitor the power supply to the HVAC system. You should still monitor temperature and humidity, as another safety check to make sure the HVAC is doing its job.

General Principles for Selecting Which Network Devices to Monitor

In the network management system of your dreams, you'll have an alarm for everything without spending extra money. In the real world, time and budget constraints usually mean you have to carefully select which telemetry you're going to monitor.

When you're choosing network elements to monitor, keep these three principles in mind:

  1. Paranoia is your friend. Think about everything that can possibly go wrong, because - guaranteed - someday it will.
  2. 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 on the first site visit.
  3. 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. Then you can gradually add more monitoring over several budget cycles.
  4. 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 soon be obsolete.

How Do You Monitor It?

Now that you have an idea of what you should be monitoring, how are you going to monitor your telemetry system?

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

Acquisition: Getting Telemetry Out of Your Equipment

There are three types of alarm inputs to consider in your system's telemetry design: contact closures, analog inputs and serial 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. They're often used as the most basic 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. Analog inputs are important for alarms where it's important to get an actual, physical measurement of the condition in real-time.

Serial Inputs

Serial inputs are electrical signals formatted into code that denotes much more complex information than contact closures or analogs. There's a wide variety of protocols for transmitting telecom telemetry data. The most common telemetry protocols are open standards like SNMP, Modbus, ASCII, and DNP3. However, there are also proprietary protocols specific to the manufacturer.

Transport: Transmit Data from the Site to Your Screen

Once data is collected at your remote sites, the streaming telemetry data occurs over your network to your NOC. Telemetry data can be sent over nearly any kind of data transport. This includes Ethernet LAN/WAN, dial-up modem, dedicated circuit, overhead channel, etc.

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

1. 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 install new network infrastructure. It's best to choose a telemetry system that is compatible with the transports you already have.

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

Presentation: Displaying Your Telemetry in a Usable Format

The final phase is presenting the telemetry data in a useful way. This makes it human-readable and usable to direct repairs. This is done through a specialized computer called a telemetry presentation master.

The master is a centralized location that collects the telemetry reports from RTUs. It also formats, sorts and displays the information for a human operator.

Map interface
A quality alarm master will present your telemetry data in way(s) that are easy to understand. In the example above, a T/Mon LNX displays alarms as icons on a map. You can drill down through node levels to get further details.

The master is really the most important part of the entire telemetry system. For the NOC technicians who monitor telemetry and dispatch repairs, the master IS the telemetry system. It's the only window they have to see what's going on in the network.

The features and capabilities of your telemetry master directly control how much useful information your NOC techs can see. A high-quality, full-featured telemetry master gives you the tools to substantially lowers your network maintenance costs.

How to Plan Your Telemetry Upgrade

It's very rare for a company to be able to suddenly leap from its current telemetry system to its ideal system. Budget restrictions and the cost of installing equipment mean 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. This will let you transition to a new telemetry system over several budget cycles:

  • Define your immediate monitoring needs
    What are the essential telemetry capabilities that you must have today? What critical equipment do you absolutely have to monitor right now?
  • Start slow, then expand
    Once you've taken care of your minimum needs, you can add more alarm signals and monitoring stations over several budget cycles. You don't have to spend more than you can afford in one budget year. Gradually move toward your ideal system as your needs and budget grow.
  • Use protocol conversion to incorporate existing equipment
    The first stages of your upgrade can be easier and more cost-effective if you can install a telemetry master. From there, you can gradually replace RTUs at your remote sites. A telemetry master that supports multiple protocols will support your existing remotes. You can immediately add new presentation capabilities without replacing your current monitoring systems.
  • Keep your future goals in mind
    While you're planning your expansion, think about what your monitoring needs are likely to be 5 years down the road. It's easier and more cost-effective to add alarm capacity in a controlled way in the immediate future. Compare that to having to rush a new deployment when you've exceeded your alarm capacity.

RTU (Remote Telemetry Unit) Choice: NetGuardian 832A

Efficient RTU
The NetGuardian 832A Remote Telemetry Unit.

The NetGuardian 832A is a full-featured remote telemetry unit. The NetGuardian supports 32 discrete alarms, 32 ping alarms, 8 analog inputs, 8 controls, and 8 serial reach-through ports.

The optional NetGuardian Expansion Unit can expand the NetGuardian's discrete alarm capacity to 80, 128 or 176 discrete alarms. The NetGuardian reports to T/Mon LNX or to multiple SNMP managers. Or use the built-in Web Browser Interface and email alarm notification to monitor your remote site without a master.