Network Monitoring — How SMS can Reduce Risk and Improve Response Time

As a network administrator, your role is a complex one but your primary task is to keep the network active and ensure that all users have smooth access to all network assets. You may have to conduct performance tests, hardware and software inventory audits (including virtual machines) and monitor areas from UPS battery status to current website connections. Configuration and maintenance take up more of your time. A variety of monitoring tasks are necessary and you perform all of them using a combination of enterprise solutions, third-party software and open source tools.

Where does SMS fit into this high-tech environment? In technology terms, SMS has been around a long time (since 1992) and many falsely believe that it is no longer of value today. This is not the case as the technology is still used in many practical applications, in emergency alert systems, in marketing and, of course, it also has valuable applications in network monitoring.

Network Downtime

Sometimes technology fails, an unfortunate fact of life, but true nonetheless. When your network goes down, your business will grind to a halt in most cases. A power outage, for example, will typically mean that all network communication will cease from that moment on. Uninterruptible power supplies (UPS’) may delay the inevitable for a few hours and generators will ensure local access continues. However, if the power loss is not confined to your building but instead a blackout affecting your neighbourhood, city or county, then you can assume your broadband connection has been lost.

If this occurs during office hours, when IT staff are onsite, then normal service will resume as soon as the power returns. However, what happens if the outage occurs outside office hours and you have an e-commerce store that relies on your servers and a high-speed broadband connection? You may have scheduled backups or support sites that have been interrupted. In such a setting, it is important that service is resumed quickly.

In most cases, you will be unaware of the outage until the start of the next working day. Can your company afford such a delay? Consider the financial and reputational impact of this downtime.

Citing a 2015 IHS report, Network Computing’s Joe Strangelli estimated “ a cost to North American companies of $700 billion a year for ICT outages. This includes lost employee productivity (78%), lost revenue (17%), and actual costs to fix the downtime issues (5%).”

Of the 400 mid to large U.S. companies surveyed, an average of five downtime incidents take place each year, with costs for each incident ranging from $1 million to $60 million.

Luckily, it is possible to eliminate some of the risk.

SMS Benefits

If your network goes down, response time is the most important factor as solving the problem quickly reduces downtime costs.  Sending an alert to your IT admin may seem an obvious solution but how is this achieved?

An SMS gateway is a way to build in some form of redundancy to your network alerts. If your network is down, a standard email or network alert will not work as… the network is not operational due to loss of power or loss of connection. An SMS gateway has its own power source, a SIM card to allow cellular network access and preconfigured alert messages. Once the gateway detects connectivity loss, it sends an SMS to the network administrator. It can also send emails if a 2G+ data connection is available. 2G is slow but functional. SMS is effective for several reasons – it works on all mobile networks (from GSM to 4G) and on all mobile phones.

In addition, the recipient is more likely to respond quickly to an SMS alert than any other form of electronic communication. Given the number of tweets, beeps, pings and other audio notifications on smartphones, it is surprising that SMS still retains top status in terms of response rates, but marketers confirm that SMS creates a genuine sense of urgency for each received message.

Therefore, your network administrator is sure to act quickly after receiving an SMS alert, and with any luck, can get your network operational as soon as possible.

Other considerations

Companies with SMS gateways in place can relax, secure in the knowledge that essential connections are monitored and that once inactive, an alert is sent out to the responsible parties.

However, alerts alone are not enough to ensure network uptime. As mentioned previously, technology will fail and a comprehensive inventory of spare parts is necessary to mimimise network downtime. Human error and cybersecurity threats are other issues that alerts will not solve–but IT and security awareness training for all employees will not only mitigate these threats but also reduce the risk of network downtime.

In conclusion, when network downtime occurs, you need a rapid response team. Given the cost of downtime to your company, it is worth ensuring your network administrator receives immediate alerts when the network fails. This not only makes financial sense but is a no-brainer for maximising business continuity and preventing reputational damage.

Redundancy and Automated Alerts Ensure Business Continuity?

In the UK and Ireland, you are made redundant when you lose your job. When something is redundant, it means that it is unnecessary, a duplicate of the existing. However, in networking and indeed business terms, having redundant options is a positive concept, as it refers to backup solutions that take over when the primary fails.

In a perfect world, where hardware often has a predetermined or estimated lifespan, companies will ensure that business continuity is possible for a wide range of ‘disasters’ whether these include loss of services, hardware failure, data loss or other unexpected events such as fire, flooding and severe weather conditions. These secondary solutions are known as redundant, backup or ‘failover’ solutions as their function is to assume control or allow the means to restore services when the primary goes down.

How important is redundancy for the average company? Is it feasible to guarantee 100 per cent uptime? What steps can companies take to minimise risk or downtime?

Obviously, due to budgetary constraints common to many companies, it is not possible to simply clone an entire IT infrastructure to ensure uptime in all areas. In any case, even if budgets are available, it does not make business or financial sense to do so. However, companies can take steps to protect themselves and reduce downtime risk.

Essential Services

In terms of business continuity, all companies are at the mercy of power companies and loss of power is a problem that faces everyone. It is solved by the use of uninterruptible power supplies (UPS) for every network device. Unfortunately, they are expensive and are not a long-term solution if power loss lasts more than a few hours. Generators will solve the problem and allow internal tasks to resume.

Given the likelihood that any blackout is not limited to your premises, you have also lost internet access, apart from internet-enabled mobile devices, of course.

It is for this reason that many companies utilise cloud services, with managed service providers for key customer-facing elements of the business, such as e-commerce websites, for example. The adoption of a hybrid IT infrastructure makes perfect sense and allows companies to continue working in the cloud until the on-premise network is back online.

In fact, according to a SolarWinds survey, 92 per cent of U.S. IT professionals claim that cloud adoption is important to their organisation. In addition, it is application, database and storage requirements that that drive increasing adoption. When only 6 per cent of have not migrated anything to the cloud, can you afford to ignore the benefits?

However, bear in mind that cloud migration does not eliminate on-premise network concerns as, in the same report, 60 per cent of respondents believe it’s unlikely that everything will be cloud-based, with security and compliance of the greatest concern. Therefore, downtime remains a tangible risk and automated network monitoring can certainly help.

Prompt Response is Key

How will you know if your network goes down? During the working day, it may well be blatantly obvious, as users will immediately contact IT when they can no longer access services. But what happens when IT are offsite or it’s after working hours?

Power loss is admittedly rare in developed countries but loss of broadband or network access is more regular and companies need immediate alerts if this happens, given that key business activities, both internal and external rely on them.

One option is a hardware SMS gateway, which alerts the parties responsible for network monitoring, whether these are on-premise or outsourced from a local IT company. Most importantly, as each gateway contains a SIM Card, alerts are sent even when an internet connection is not present. With a 3G option to facilitate communication, automated email alerts (in addition to SMS) are also possible due to inbuilt modems and watchdog mechanisms.

With such an alert mechanism in place, response time is reduced and your chosen IT professionals can solve the root cause faster, reducing downtime and loss of productivity.

How Much does Downtime Cost?

In many situations, reactive support is necessary, hence the requirement for an automated alert system. With power loss and internet connection issues solved, companies can take additional steps to maintain business continuity.

The big one is, of course, data loss due to hardware failure. Hard drives fail regularly and few companies operate without protecting their data by using real-time backups and regular offsite archiving. However, this is only a small part of the network redundancy options available and each companies needs to evaluate their redundancy strategy. Ask yourself how much it will cost if your internal network goes down for an hour. How about an entire day?

In factory production, for example, an hour could be very costly. In a small office, perhaps not so much. Therefore, weigh the costs of employing network redundancy at all points in the data path against the cost and perceived risk of failure.

Increase Redundancy?

Reducing risk factors is a key objective in business but is generally considered in budgetary terms. If the risk is low and the cost for a redundant feature far exceeds the possible costs of failure then it is not worth implementing.

For example, redundant measures could include but are not limited to:

  • Network cabling setup that facilities redundancy — ring protocols or redundant coupling, for example.
  • Managed switches that reroute connections if one path fails.
  • Redundant dedicated broadband connections from another service provider.
  • Multiple backup plans for servers and desktops.
  • Use of colocation servers and failover technology.
  • Backups for cooling, power, fire and water detection

In conclusion, 100 per cent network redundancy comes with a hefty price tag, requiring ongoing maintenance and management from professionals with a variety of skill sets. Even then, 100 per cent uptime is not guaranteed.

Large enterprises with dedicated data centres can handle these requirements but smaller companies simply do not have the budget or staff to support a fully redundant network. While theoretically, it is indeed better to be proactive, it is more cost-effective to put a preventative maintenance process in place and react to hardware problems as they occur, in accordance with a defined disaster recovery plan. When alerts are automated, what more is needed to reduce downtime?

How SMS Remains Relevant in Spite of Emerging Tech

In 1992, the first Short Message Service (SMS) simply read “Merry Christmas”. More than 20 years later, texting via SMS has lost none of its purpose, despite the rise of multimedia messaging service (MMS), the smartphone in 2010, subsequent over the top (OTT) messaging apps and of course, social media solutions such as Facebook. Whether for personal or business use, SMS usage has continued unabated, which is impressive for such ‘outdated technology’ that was originally designed for Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) networks. As 5G approaches, SMS remains.

When technology moves so fast, how has SMS remained so popular? How can companies capitalise on it to improve internal processes, customer services and other activities?

Trivial Update or Important?

Today, if dining in a local restaurant, we’re treated to a variety of repetitive whistles, chirps and other alerts from smartphones in the vicinity, most of which are ignored by their owners. The reason for this is simple; these alerts typically originate from messaging apps, which cost the sender nothing and as a result rarely require an instant response. An SMS alert is quite different and, while costs vary according to monthly subscription tariffs, there’s a cost involved. The result? Most will quickly read the message and send a response if necessary. In fact, marketing professionals are well aware of this fact, that SMS has the highest engagement rate of all messaging options, with 90 per cent of all SMS messages read within three minutes.

You’re probably wondering, why SMS? Why not call the person directly? Of course, that’s an option but if a group of people are involved, or you’re simply sending a short greeting or confirmation that you’ll arrive soon, isn’t SMS more convenient?

SMS vs. OTP Apps

When compared with Skype, Facebook or other messaging solutions, SMS has several other advantages. SMS bundles are typically included as part of a service plan and are directly linked to your mobile phone. In other words, if you use a mobile, you have SMS functionality without having to subscribe or join another service. You don’t have to invite contacts or accept invitations to communicate.

Not everyone has a smartphone so use of SMS ensures that your contact will receive your message regardless of phone type. The same isn’t true of OTP apps, which relies on high-speed internet to work. If you lose your 3G signal, voice and indeed SMS are still possible.

In fact, in an emergency situation such as a blackout, or during times where mobile traffic is very high (New Year’s Eve, for example), an SMS is typically the best solution as it’s queued in the short message service centre (SMSC) and will be delivered as soon as the bandwidth is available. An SMS text, being limited to 160 characters, takes much less bandwidth than a voice call so is more likely to be processed quicker. Compare that with the frustration of repeatedly dialing and receiving no response.

P2P and A2P

SMS is broken into two distinct types, namely person to person (P2P) and application to person (A2P). P2P is self-explanatory and can include voting  for reality TV shows and entering competitions but A2P is primarily used in the business world and is a growing market, having been adopted by many industry areas and repurposed to aid several business processes including but not limited to:

  1. Customer Security – A2P is used by companies as part of a two-step or two-factor authentication (2FA) process when accessing services that are considered a viable target for hackers. The process typically involved a standard login to a service. Then, as the second step, a passcode is sent to the user’s phone by SMS. The user then enters the passcode and is able to access the service. Banks, other financial service providers and organisations such as Google, Facebook and Hootsuite also protect their customer accounts by combining geolocation detection with SMS transmission, alerting users that their account has been accessed from a suspicious location.
  2. IT and risk management – IT teams may not work 24 hours a day but your business network may well rely on services that require 100 per cent uptime, such as support ticket management or e-commerce solutions. Devices that incorporate a mobile SIM card can alert you when internet connectivity has failed and reduce required response times considerably.
  3. Marketing – Due the high engagement rate mentioned previously, digital marketers with a ‘mobile first’ strategy will include SMS as a vital part of their communication with customers.
  4. Emergency alerts – Emergency services are considering the addition of SMS and in hospitals, paging systems based on SMS technology are commonly employed. The reason is of course based on redundancy, when all else fails, SMS is an excellent and affordable solution.

In conclusion, advancing technology has made smartphones and global collaboration over broadband a reality but despite all this progress, SMS still has a viable role to play in connecting them. While email, OTP apps, VoIP are all useful, they rely on the internet. Without it, SMS and standard voice communication are the only options and are extremely unlikely to become obsolete in the foreseeable future.