Still Running an Old School Test Lab?
by Chris O'Conor
I'm not talking about the white lab coats, bunsen burners, and test tubes; I'm talking about your
technology interoperability and certification lab.
During my 25 years in the world of technology I've been through a lot of interop and
certification labs. I've seen environments that look like a NASA clean room and labs that make
me feel dirty. In every case, the lab managers tell me they want to run the best lab possible, but
many fall short due to lack of investment in lab personnel, lack of resources, or little awareness
in the company as a whole that a well-run and automated lab can be a competitive advantage.
How can a lab be a competitive advantage?
Labs are trusted to certify new equipment for the 'network' - or datacenter, enterprise, IOT
component - so that new services can be provided to clients without a glitch, to either increase
revenue and/or remain competitive. The longer it takes to certify new gear and new services by
relying on manual lab operations, the further away from those goals the company gets. Fast,
repeatable, and agile lab operations get these services to market much faster and at a much
In many instances organizations choose to create individual labs for each portion of the
network - think Metro, long haul, IP, CPE, etc. in a telco environment. With automation, labs
can share expensive equipment and reconfigure tests remotely and immediately. Using readily
available tools, resources can be securely shared between silos without conflict. This also
enables 'follow the sun' access to lab resources with 24-hour global access to shared test
Fast issue resolution is another competitive advantage. Not everything runs right all the time.
As a vendor trying to get time in a lab I've heard, "we are having a network issue that we are
trying to simulate, so you'll just have to wait". I’ve watched this fire drill over and over again. It
usually involves dozens of single-mode fiber (SMF) spools on the ground, patch cable spaghetti
and $150,000 routers being rolled around on valet carts. An automated lab has an efficient and
immediate method to cross-connect any network component within minutes, not hours or
days. This level of dynamic connectivity cuts down on network troubleshooting and gets the
network resolved in a fraction of the time vs. the old school method.
To add insult to injury, the push for network function virtualization (NFV) and software defined
networking (SDN) is only going to further stress the old school labs. All SDN-enabled
components will need to be recertified to confirm interoperability in the new dynamic
environment. But, this is a topic all its own for another day.
How tough is it to evolve into an automated lab environment from an old school lab?
Not as tough as you might think.
First and foremost, the lab team needs a partner in the CFO Office (love that line, plagiarized
from a talk I attended). The costs associated with lab automation are usually not in the budget,
but the cost SAVINGS associated with lab automation far outweigh the investment. Hence the
need for a money-person to be involved. The group also needs mindshare from the
organization as a whole in order to be successful. In an automated lab, the person formerly
moving the $150,000 router around on the valet cart is going to need to find a new job. And the
person creating the Jackson Pollock masterpiece with SMF will be very disappointed.
Once those hurdles are crossed, there are a number of specialized software companies
on providing lab automation management programs, or Lab-as- a-Service. These programs
create the environment that allows for reservations of lab resources, the actual test procedures
to be run, and for documenting the results of the tests. The process of integrating all of the
hardware components within your enterprise is not an easy task. And what I’ve learned is that
the basic connectivity of the lab is the simple part, so make sure you have a good relationship
with your lab automation software partner.
Finally, an automated lab requires a reliable all-optical fiber switch, which provides the dynamic
foundation for the lab network. A fiber switch allows cabling to equipment just once and tests
to be remotely configured on demand. The switch should be as transparent as possible to
deliver the most accurate test results, sized properly to interconnect all network elements
within the lab today (with some room for tomorrow), and be fully compatible with the
automation software package. By cabling just once, the lab results are not subjected to
potential fiber hygiene issues (it happens all the time), creating a repeatable and reliable result.
Working with the integration software, the switch provides partitioned testing environments,
which allow multiple groups within a company to run testing simultaneously, saving time and
money. Switches must be all-optical to be transparent to ANY optical speed/circuit
type/number of wavelengths, so that as line rates and transmission formats continue to
advance, the investment is preserved.
As an optical switch vendor, I spend my days discussing the advantages of lab automation and
the expected positive results. Our HUBER+SUHNER Polatis all-optical switch has been widely
accepted as the industry standard in all-optical fiber switches for lab automation
I'd enjoy hearing your views on how lab automation could work for you.
RVP H+S Polatis
Welcome to the new world.
Network test lab automation.