Ontario college takes network back to nature

TORONTO (11/03/2003) - Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario is teaching the network to speak up for itself.

Over the past year the school has built a system that lets the network tell its minders what's happening, not by graphs and colored dots, but by sounds. And not just any sounds, but a marsh, teeming with birds, frogs and a soothing hint of rain in the background.

Bill Farkas, coordinator of telecommunications technology at Sheridan, is leading the research into this network "sonification." Alongside Alain Bateman, a computer science student, Shazad Bagha, a telecom student, and Hong Tae Jeon, another telecom student that Farkas describes as "the guru in charge," the team means to put network management on the front burner.

"One of the difficulties today in terms of monitoring networks is the analytical complexity of most of the tools and interfaces used to see what's going on," Farkas said. "There are so many variables, and so much interplay between the variables, that even some of the best graphical representations — charts, plots and so on — they take quite a learning curve...and an awful lot of concentration.

"If you're not sitting and staring at the darned thing all the time, by the time you do turn to it it's usually too late."

Sonification could help people keep better tabs on the network, he explained.

"The idea is this: our intelligence is primarily visual, but we have a second, very important intelligence — almost a parallel auditory intelligence," Farkas said. "A number of studies have indicated that we have a tremendous capacity for pattern recognition in sound."

Sheridan's project translates network changes as various bird calls, frog croaks and weather phenomena. For example, bandwidth sounds like rain, and a thunderclap accompanies a sudden increase in bandwidth use. User datagram protocol (UDP) traffic sounds like a wind chime. Frogs represent Internet control message protocol (ICMP) traffic. Intrusion detection sounds like footsteps that get louder as threats appear.

"In time, we believe what will happen is there will be a natural sense of what's normal and what's not," Farkas said. "The synergy of sounds will effectively speak to them, and with some experience they'll be able to say, 'I think I know what's wrong here.'"

One of the biggest challenges in the project is deciding which sounds to use.

"We've had Homer Simpson go 'D'oh!' It's difficult to hold some discipline on the sound thing, because there are so many things we can sonify." Still, he said the team plans to stick with the nature theme.

Farkas said Sheridan's chief information officer is enthusiastic about the project, so much so that the system might find its way into the school's network operations center and the help desk office, where sonification could come in handy.

"They're front-line...but they don't know what's going on on the network, and the guys in the net center are always too busy to explain to them. They always feel kind of left out of the loop."

Sonification could give help desk employees greater insight into the network, which should, in turn, make them more effective.

As for the future, "we're hoping that we can go commercial with it at some stage," Farkas said. "Our research grants depend on corporate participation. We're hoping to find some organization out there that thinks the way we do and is interested in what we're doing. Then we can turn around to the government and say, 'We have partnerships, so we merit further funding.'"

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