I remember it was only a few years ago when my clients were clamoring to upgrade to the latest and greatest in internet bandwidth technology, a T1. Times have certainly changed and along with it the many ways we use the internet today – consider the upward trend in social media usage, telecommuting, and the number of available cloud-based and entertainment applications. There is also user expectation that internet connectivity be ubiquitous, at home and in the corporate office. The combination of these factors has made managing bandwidth for most organizations a constant tug of war between what IT can provide cost-effectively and what the users demand.
Slow networks and unreliable connectivity can also create significant impacts on business: impaired performance of critical business applications, loss of employees’ productivity, more help desk calls, and higher costs of frequent bandwidth and infrastructure upgrades.
Since costs have come down substantially in the last few years, the easy answer to these problems may be to increase bandwidth. But doing so may only fix the "symptoms" (the slowness), not the actual "cause." I have seen performance issues rear their ugly heads even after a major bandwidth upgrade. Instead of watching low-definition videos, users will start watching hi-definition videos, or a lurking virus will propagate much faster. This is where appropriate network assessment and bandwidth management strategy come into play.
The three core elements of any effective bandwidth management strategy are policy, visibility, and control.
Developing and communicating a consistent internet usage policy outlining what users can and cannot use the internet for is the first nontechnical step to effectively manage the flow of network traffic. However, a policy alone is rarely successful as it relies on self-reinforcement and an honor system that typically fails around, say, Masters Tournament or World Cup. To address this issue, visibility plays a vital role.
Social networking, file sharing and photo-video applications collectively represent 24% of the applications and 23% of the bandwidth, with Facebook consuming up to 71% of all social networking bandwidth1. How does your organization stack up against these numbers? If you have no idea, read on.
How to increase visibility:
• Through the use of your existing infrastructure’s built-in tools. Most firewalls have basic built-in monitoring tools that can report on Internet usage patterns. Many routers and switches have the ability to export network flow data to third-party applications (Solarwinds, Whatsup Gold, Netflow Analyzer) for real-time visibility and reporting.
· Through dedicated hardware devices for collecting, aggregating, analyzing, and reporting network data. For example, Blue Coat, Exinda, and Barracuda are physical hardware appliances you install on your network while AppNeta is a cloud-based service that gives you visibility into your network usage.
Once you have visibility into how your bandwidth usage, the next step is implementing some form of control. My philosophy on bandwidth control falls into two approaches:
1. The autocratic approach involves blocking noncritical applications. This typically results in the greatest short-term improvement in network performance by restricting access to many entertainment applications. However, this can create unforeseen issues. For instance, YouTube and Facebook may be used by your events or membership staff to post conference videos and updates. This approach can also create a level of resentment among employees that may be contrary to the culture of your organization.
2. The populist approach focuses on prioritizing business critical applications. You may restrict social media to just ten percent or video streaming to five percent of your total bandwidth, while prioritizing access to your website and key business applications. The ability to implement such granular controls is rarely something that is available out of the box and requires investment in hardware solutions.
Some bandwidth management solutions:
Some of the vendors mentioned in the “Visibility” section also provide control and management functionality. Exinda’s Network Control Suite and Blue Coat's PacketShaper are two effective platforms with which I’ve had great success. Also, products that aid in Wide Area Network (WAN) acceleration and optimization of internet traffic like Riverbed are especially helpful for organizations with a lot of remote employees or multiple office locations.
Demands for high-performing networks will only increase with time, as will the challenges of effectively managing network data flow. It is imperative that you have a comprehensive, long-term approach to these challenges, one that incorporates policy, visibility, and control, and one that is in sync with your organization’s unique resources and culture. Remember, most of the time adding more bandwidth alone is rarely the best solution for enhancing your network.
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