Is Your Network Ready for March Madness?

It is estimated that the first week of the NCAA tournament costs businesses up to $1.8 billion annually. It is unlikely that filling out game brackets and employee organized office pools could be the sole culprits for this massive dip in productivity, rather it is unsuspecting networks and causing the impact. Even though some streaming video stress has been transferred to personal smart devices, in recent years, March Madness has served as a reminder to network administrators about the stress streaming video can place on a network.

Most IT organizations have largely “deregulated" Internet access. While you may be willing to accept occasional employee use of YouTube and other streaming video, March Madness presents a very different challenge as it is sustained streaming that can last hours and is viewed by multiple employees at the same time. Each NCAA on demand stream requires about 650 Kbps and the high-quality version will consume up to 1.8 Mbps. Even if you have high-speed Internet connectivity, this can quickly zap bandwidth from critical applications and even harm voice traffic. A network without proper planning and prioritization in place could make your perky customer service reps to sound like Darth Vader while "Bob in Accounting" is cheering on his alma mater.  If you aren’t sure you’re ready, here are the three steps you should take.

Plan:

The easiest way to reduce the impact of March Madness on your network is to establish an acceptable use plan and set clear expectations about what type of web usage is and isn't permitted. Few employees will deliberately violate an acceptable use policy (AUP) that they are aware of; particularly if they understand the impact their streaming content can have on other users' business applications. As part of your AUP, you may want to consider designating a break room or conference room PC as fair game for group streaming. Simply reducing the number of streams from one per employee to one per office can have a huge impact. If your users aren't going to be productive during the game they might as well socialize.

Monitor:

Of course some more devout fans may continue to stream in secret. Fortunately it is difficult to hide a full-motion video stream due to its bandwidth consumption. If you haven't already, you should enable a monitoring system that collects statistics on traffic that passes through the router (such as Windstream’s Intrusion Detection and Prevention System). These statistics are exported to a collector that runs on a PC or server and can be aggregated into per-conversation views to understand who is consuming your bandwidth and how they are using it.  Unfortunately it isn't always quite this easy. Many videos (NCAA included) are delivered using Content Distribute Networks (CDNs) like Akamai. However, streaming video is still easy to identify as its transmission rate will be over 300 Kbps and its application type will generally show up as HTTP. Such a large HTTP session will stand out from normal web browsing if it is sustained for any length of time.

Prioritize and Enforce:

Many IT organizations that want to eliminate streaming video content take the wrong approach. Creating firewall policies to block sites based on URL, port numbers and other factors is generally not effective at blocking video traffic for very long. Internet video delivery technologies are continuously evolving. Adobe Flash is currently the most prevalent video streaming technology and it has evolved to defeat many basic firewall and ACL rules.

Quality of service policies need to be established to limit the bandwidth available to recreational Internet traffic. Hopefully you are already doing this but it is important to recognize that you won't be able to block all the traffic you'd like. As a fail-safe, you need to minimize the impact recreational traffic has on your business critical applications. Many organizations treat all Internet traffic as recreational. With the increase of SaaS applications such as salesforce.com this is no longer a safe assumption.

References:
Challenger Gray & Christmas - MARCH MADNESS REPORT: Tourney Could Cost Employers $1.8 Billionhttp://challengeratworkblog.blogspot.com/2010/03/march-madness-report-tourney-could-cost.html