Meeting the transparency testing needs of small and medium businesses

New, unique small and medium enterprises (SMEs) are established every day, each trying to create the potential next big thing in the industry. When it comes to transparency testing, however, SMEs face unique challenges. Testing equipment in the optical telecommunications market is still geared toward larger companies, while small players are pushed by the wayside.

By Jean-Lou Dupont
Data-Tester, Inc.

In 1943, IBM Chairman Thomas Watson infamously said, “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” To put it mildly, that prediction turned out to be a slight underestimation. Unfortunately, the optical transparency testing industry is caught up in a similarly misguided notion: that the only kinds of companies that need effective transparency testing are large ones.

The optical testing industry has come a long way since Hewlett-Packard convinced the IEEE to create the IEEE-488 GPIB standard to test its own products. Bit error rate (BER), pseudo-random bit sequence (PRBS), and SONET/SDH testing standards are extremely powerful, and instruments such as the Agilient OmniBER and the Digital Lightwave NIC NXG have been used within the industry for years. Even models that have been discontinued are still prominent.

However, business models are rapidly changing. We live in an era where small and medium-sized technology companies now have unprecedented resources and capabilities to innovate. New, unique small and medium enterprises (SMEs) are established every day, each trying to create the potential next big thing in the industry. When it comes to transparency testing, however, SMEs face unique challenges. Testing equipment in the optical telecommunications market is still geared toward larger companies, while small players are pushed by the wayside.

SME business needs

There are two common SME applications of transparency test equipment. The first involves small R&D teams and engineering labs in the area of optical telecommunication. These firms need a proper development infrastructure to develop cutting-edge optical technology. This infrastructure includes a constant need for simulating and testing to ensure compatibility and performance results. If they can’t afford adequate test equipment, SMEs face major disadvantages while competing with larger companies.

The second application for transparency testing for SMEs occurs with subcontractors -- small verification labs for whom testing is a living, validating the quality of service of larger companies’ optical infrastructure. However, when quality testing equipment is hard to procure, these companies often need to settle for older, used test gear.

SMEs in these fields, among others, have long found that competition in this marketplace is ruthless. Larger companies hold a powerful weapon – their economies of scale – while small-medium businesses have suffered from a litany of challenges procuring transparency testing equipment. The following table lists five of these major challenges.

Challenge Small-Medium Enterprise Impact
Unaffordable Pricing Most SMEs only need 20% of the functionality of existing large-scale testing equipment, and therefore cannot justify its high cost.
Choosing the right equipment There is a vast wealth of testing equipment available, each with specific parameters and advantages. SMEs can be overwhelmed when trying to determine which model best addresses their needs. Larger companies with larger budgets have the resources to better research and test the various options.

Complex Equipment Operation
Many systems involve installing proprietary software, learning new command line languages, or operating unintuitive touch-screen based interfaces designed for highly experienced testing professionals. Many SMEs do not have such professionals on staff and are forced to hire outside help.
Vendor ResponsivenessCompanies in the test and measurement field have finally made the switch to Web-based support. But such facilities remain very basic and slow, meaning that SMEs often can’t get support when they need it. Meanwhile, the procurement cycle for existing transparency test equipment can take months, grinding important projects to a standstill. A prominent issue is quotes: many traditional procurement methods don’t list their prices and maintain an archaic quoting system. And after instruments are procured, deliveries can take weeks.
Inefficient Updating MethodMany traditional testers don’t have upgrades available over the Internet, and updates are slow to arrive. Furthermore, many of the traditional hardware is not reconfigurable, meaning that upgrades may require a complete physical overhaul or the purchase of a new device.

A modern solution for SMEs

Fortunately for SMEs, technology and business models are finally catching up to their requirements, which means they no longer have to settle for high costs, long procurement processes, and inadequate customer service. Instead, SMEs can procure test equipment in ways that work for them. Not surprisingly, much of this progress has arrived via fellow SMEs, who have used their shared industry experiences to tailor new equipment and business practices specifically to the unique requirements of other SMEs.

Let’s examine those same five challenges, and see how they can be addressed by new technology:

  • Affordable pricing: New transparency testing equipment options enable users to pick and choose specific functions, eliminating the gap between what customers get and what customers need. Instead of purchasing expensive test equipment with 80% redundant technology, customizable or versatile testing equipment prices SMEs into the market.
  • Equipment variety: New technologies have the ability to match needs to the right equipment. An Internet accessible Web “Solution Configurator” application is just one example; using such a tool, a customer can easily match test requirements with the appropriate system in a matter of minutes.
  • Easy equipment operation: New transparency technology developers have made a concerted effort to make their products accessible through simple and foolproof interfaces. This enables small businesses to skip time-intensive technical support or costly external IT services.
  • Improved vendor responsiveness: New approaches easily outclass traditional methods when it comes to answering customer questions, providing up-to-date product information, offering the latest software updates, and influencing product and features roadmaps. These Internet-enable approaches include Twitter, customer support forums, and suggestions management platforms. Similarly, e-commerce cuts procurement time from weeks to minutes. Publicly published standard pricing lists are also readily available to streamline acquiring quotes. And test equipment can ship within days, and with the advance of “cloud-based” test capabilities, new features may soon be available in a matter of minutes.
  • Efficient updating system and hardware sustainability: Test equipment with built-in modems offer no-hassle upgrades from the Web. And thanks to the use of field programmable gate arrays (FPGAs), test systems increasingly incorporate reconfigurable hardware, which ensures sustainability and lifetime flexibility.

The consistent theme among these new technologies and business models is the competitive advantage they lend to small and medium businesses. Versatility, customization, and fast time-to-market are the aspects most sought after by SMEs. And, of course, nothing beats the pricing, which allows SMEs to afford modern, efficient, and optimal, and test capabilities -- a necessity when competing with big businesses.

What has constantly allowed small and medium businesses to thrive, even within the shadow of an industry giant, is the “we can do it better” attitude. Whether their competitive advantage is in their products or in their processes, SMEs have created better technologies by never settling for industry norms. New innovations in the transport testing arena follow the same philosophy.

Jean-Lou Dupont is president of Data-Tester Inc. He has held the position of technical director for over 15 years with prominent telecom electronics companies including Ericsson and Marconi Communications. Dupont has significant experience defining, developing, and implementing successful multi-million dollar products and strategies for multi-billion dollar markets.

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