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Cisco Combats Network Problems Impacting Hybrid Workers

Automated Session Testing displays common network points for all meeting participants .png

Automated Session Testing displays common network points for all meeting participants.

Image: Cisco
Cisco recently launched added two new end-user monitoring tools to ThousandEyes—Automated Session Testing and Agent View. Both are designed to assist IT teams in managing daily problems that affect applications running on top of complex networking environments, and boost the digital experiences of their workforces.
ThousandEyes Automated Session Testing automates visibility into behind the scenes performance of Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Cisco’s Webex by allowing IT to see every connection, for every session, for every end user for that specific meeting. Meanwhile, Agent View provides help desk and IT support teams with metrics about the overall health of the user experience across device, app, and network. These metrics allows IT teams to identify trends that could be negatively impacting performance and end-user experience.
No Jitter recently interviewed Alex Cruz Farmer, group product lead for Cisco’s ThousandEyes End User Monitoring tool, to discuss challenges end users face in hybrid work environments, how Automated Session Testing and Agent View for ThousandEyes End User Monitoring addresses these challenges, and what productivity means for hybrid workers. Farmer also recommended best practices for those responsible for deploying and supporting collaboration apps, and technologies to invest in as the future of connectivity takes shape.
Responses have been edited for conciseness and clarity.
What do you think are the three most important and immediate challenges that end users have to manage in hybrid work environments?
ACF: The first challenge for all of us is dealing with IT virtually—not having someone tangible to see and speak to changes the dynamic. If you have a problem with your laptop, it’s complicated for less-technical people to hold seven different buttons, then reboot at the same time while also staying on the phone trying to solve the problem.
The next challenge is getting used to seeing ourselves on collaboration apps. When things like videoconferencing don’t work, it’s the worst thing ever, for me personally—especially when you’re trying to impress those big customers. It’s also stressful for our IT team desperately trying to get me back on the call—causing unnecessary anxiety.
The final [challenge] is IT has blindness to the home networks and transient issues. Many of us have been plagued by random [technical] issues over the past couple of years, especially ones IT hasn’t been able to pinpoint. I think that [stems from] them not having the proper visibility. With the whole notion of having a problem, not being able to fix it, not understanding how it works, then speaking to IT and saying, ‘what can you do for me?’ Then IT says, “we don’t know what your home network looks like because it’s your home network, and we don’t own the assets.
The whole notion of “problems” come and go—unless IT is literally logging into your machine the second that happens, they’re entirely blind to that problem.
Now we’re all working from home and we’re so reliant on our home broadband—there are so many different things across that digital supply chain that could be causing the problem—wireless being one of the main contenders.
How do Automated Session Testing and Agent View address these challenges?
ACF: Cisco’s ThousandEyes platform allows our customers to dig through, identify, and ultimately resolve issues for our end users. We were looking for innovative ways to improve the way our users use our platform and how we can collect data a bit more efficiently. One of the major challenges our customers faced was the ever-moving target of SaaS-based applications.
Many of those applications are moving to edge computing or content delivery networks like Cloudflare and AWS. [These] applications dynamically decide on the fly what the best data center is to connect you. They do this for the primary reason of user experience—making sure the user has the best experience possible because every millisecond matters. A great way to avoid disappointing customers is when a specific data center has a degradation or issue that pops up because the apps will automatically self-heal.
A great example of that is how you connected today to our Webex Meeting. When you load the Webex application, a bunch of stuff happens behind the scenes. The application sends a whole load of [network] probes to many different Webex data centers to identify which one gives you the best performance possible when you load the application. One day you could connect to Chicago, but another day you could open up Webex and connect to New York because maybe one of the million things that could go wrong goes wrong, and they’ve decided to reroute you somewhere else. What’s happening is transparent, but you [the user] wouldn’t be able to see that.
We automate session testing, essentially helping our customers identify the IP addresses and hosts that a desktop application is connecting to and taking away the need for IT to dig through your machine to understand the IP addresses or guess for data centers to which you’re connecting. At the same time, we wanted to reduce configuration friction for our customers. I never want our customers to configure an IP address or hostname ever again. I only want them to tell us what business-critical applications they use day-to-day, and Cisco takes care of everything else.
Alongside automated session testing, we also can drill down and look at a specific user with Agent View. To make a long story short, I was having issues in a meeting where my video and audio kept dropping, which became embarrassing being a PM for an end-user experience tool. Agent view gives a consolidated view of all the metrics for only my device in a simplistic format and identifies what's causing a terrible experience. To dig into the settings and figure out what’s happening isn’t an easy thing to do. Agent view is a quicker way for me to have a look and understand that.
When you define “productivity,” what does that mean for hybrid workers?
ACF: I’ve ended up empathizing a lot with IT because they were the unsung heroes through the pandemic that ended up having to figure out in a short space of time how to rebuild a runbook from scratch. What [the pandemic] caused us all to consider is how our IT operations work and how we can improve them. IT teams problems have got worse, and they’re much slower to respond because they’ve got so many problems to deal with.
A journey I’m hoping we can go on with ThousandEyes, particularly on the end-user monitoring side, is to help IT teams become more proactive than reactive. A lot of the problems that come up, again and again, could be automated to a certain degree. We can help organizations identify those problems and be much more proactive about solving them, freeing up time for IT to spend on the critical time they should be spending on further improving the digital experience.
What are some best practices you recommend for the people who are responsible for deploying and supporting collaboration apps?
ACF: The critical piece here is that you’re never going to be in a position where you can map out everybody’s home network. That’s not sustainable. It’s not going to happen. Equally, organizations won’t spend money on shipping equipment out. So what can IT do? How can they see better? It’s critical that when you’re deploying the platform, you’re making sure it has easily accessible insights. What our ThousandEyes team is doing at Webex is helping customers increase that visibility.
But the challenge for any of these [collaboration] platforms is that they can tell you what the problem is—i.e., packet loss, Wi-Fi issues—but they can’t quantify why the problem is there without having a dedicated team or solution in place. if you have a monitoring system, it can tell you when a platform goes down, it can tell you that the obligation is down, but the system can't tell you what the root cause is—that’s the gap we’re trying to solve and fill.
Blue-Sky time: As the future of connectivity takes shape, what are some technologies organizations should invest in? Why?
ACF: Visibility is key. Everybody’s moved to SaaS, and the Internet has become a private network with the introduction of zero trust, SASE, and all the other overlay-style technologies. Many IT teams have completely lost control of the things they used to have. So they can’t walk into a data center anymore to turn off a server and turn it on again—those days are long gone. They’re not even in a situation where they can get to a server room and reboot. That all moved to the cloud.
IT has big challenges that boil down to visibility and control when buying a SaaS application or infrastructure as a service (IaaS) platform. It’s relatively black box. Customers that we speak to feel like they’re closed in and can’t get that control back. I feel we can consider how our customers can get better visibility and regain that feeling of control.
*Automated Session Testing and Agent View are available now at no extra cost to ThousandEyes subscribers.