When asked what kind of software a Crystal system is, we often say “it’s a network management system”. Unfortunately, there is no better term to describe it – it’s close, but can be somewhat misleading.
Most people, when they hear “network”, assume a computer network.
If you talk to a non-technical person, they think of one, very specific computer network – the Internet.
The majority of technical people think of an Ethernet-based network, with routers and switches connected by Cat5 cables (or fiber), typically forwarding IP (Internet Protocol) packets. They wouldn’t be wrong, because Ethernet (or, more broadly, packet-switched networks) are the traditional focus of network management systems.
But what we provide at Crystal is much broader. We must monitor and control networks that are not necessarily computer networks. Most of our customers’ networks have a TV camera at one end – shooting a football game, for example – and a television set at the other – so you can view the game in your living room or favorite sports bar.
Even though the camera and your TV are much “smarter” now than ever before, many of the devices managing and transporting the video from that camera to your TV are not.
Some of them were made as much as 25 years ago!
Why would anyone keep using equipment that old? When the device in question is a telecommunication satellite that cost $150,000,000 to build and launch, you would drive it “until wheels fall off”.
The oldest communications satellite in orbit that is still in use is the GOES 3. It was launched in 1978. Many devices used to communicate via satellites are expensive and have long life cycles.
However, the Internet is very different.
The equipment used to carry data on these networks are smart enough to detect problems and, most importantly, automatically take actions to circumvent the problems to provide uninterrupted service. The network is autonomous and self-healing. More importantly, network devices (switches, routers, etc.) from different manufacturers speak the same language to cooperate on keeping the network problem-free.
All IP routers support BGP (Border Gateway Protocol) to determine more efficient routing and SNMP (Simple Network Management Protocol) to monitor and manage them – regardless of whether the device is made by Cisco, Juniper, or any other manufacturer. Traditional network management systems are designed and built for this type of environment.
But what do you do when your network consists of segments that are IP-based and self-healing, and, at the same time, segments that route uncompressed (raw) video over coaxial cables, fiber links, Microwave RF links, satellite links – that are not autonomous and self-healing?
But why is Network Management System an incorrect term? It’s still a network, after all?
Imagine if instead of devices transporting video, we monitored and controlled devices used to transport oil and gas. A pipeline that transports oil and gas is actually a network too. The principles of monitoring and controlling these devices are very close to the ones used to control satellite transmission waveguide switches, amplifiers, and many other devices. So close, in fact, that some peripherals bought and used for our systems are exactly the same.
However, if Crystal entered that market, Crystal would be called a SCADA system – Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition. The concepts are so similar I use SCADA as a keyword in our job postings and when searching resume databases.
When you monitor and control devices managing matter (oil, gas, water) or energy, rather than information (zeroes, ones, video frames), the whole vocabulary that describes what you do magically changes.
In addition to SCADA, terms like “Industrial Automation Systems”, “Industrial Control Systems”, “HMI” (Human-Machine Interface) are also used. On multiple occasions, I have explained to people, what we do as “imagine a SCADA / Industrial Automation system used by a TV broadcaster or a teleport” – if my listener is more familiar with those industries.
Understanding these differences explains why Crystal is such a good fit for what our customers do. A traditional network management system, with its focus on SNMP-capable devices and assumption that the devices are smart enough to “manage themselves”, will leave out a very substantial part of the operation to be monitored and controlled by human operators.
A traditional industrial control system will struggle with complexities of packet-switched networks, configuration management, and root cause analysis.
Our Crystal Control Network Management System lives and operates in both of these worlds.