What Network Administrators Can Learn From March Madness
March Madness is in full swing, and it could impact your company's network, whether you know it, like it or neither.
With 68 teams playing 36 games in the first seven days, the NCAA is forced to schedule the majority of its games during the standard 9 to 5 workday. But that won't stop sports-loving employees from using network capacity to watch the games.
For example, last season Turner Broadcasting System and CBS Sports experienced a 47 percent increase in online streaming. A whopping 10.3 million hours alone were streamed in the first seven days of the three-week-long tournament.
According to a recent MSN survey, employees watching the tournament online will dedicate at least one hour of work time to follow the event this year, whether it be at lunchtime or during work hours. Making matters worse (for network managers, at least) is that this year's streaming service will be optimized to support more mobile platforms, including Android devices.
As Viewers View, Networks Slow Down
This creates a real challenge for network managers: Network capacity will slow down often quite noticeably as new devices will be entering the network and productivity will be hampered. This includes folks who travel to the vicinity of a business and log in to surrounding WiFi on a drop-in basis.
It is important to note that streaming and television are two completely different technologies. TV is one broadcast signal that's read by many viewers; in streaming video, everybody gets their own stream connection. Literally, the more watchers a streaming video provider has, the more bandwidth it consumes--on both ends.
"March Madness is a special event for network operators, especially this year," Brian Jacobs, senior product manager at Ipswitch WhatsUp Gold, told eWEEK. Ipswitch is a provider of network management, monitoring, email/messaging, and file transfer software for enterprises.
"If you think about other events, like the NFL Super Bowl or MLB playoffs , those events happen over the course of weeks or months and mostly are not during business hours . In the Big Dance, everybody's playing every day for a relatively short period of time . And many of those are during business hours.
"Due to the diversity of teams, almost every company is going to have some people interested in watching a game at least some time during March Madness."
BYOD Becoming a Huge Factor
What makes this year more significant than in the past is the phenomenon of BYOD, or bring your own device(s), Jacobs said.
"Now we've got all these smartphones, tablets and netbooks that are capable of streaming all these games. NCAA.com, for example, was offering unlimited streaming per person for $4. So for four bucks, you can watch whatever game you want at any time, with any device you have," Jacobs said.
That makes the accessibility practically a no-brainer. Devices such as those mentioned above can all attach to a work network, and now all of a sudden, people are using their work resources to stream the games.
"This can be potentially disastrous for a network," Jacobs said. "You and I are now on a call that's going through our Internet uplink at my office. If we had 30-40-50 people watching the basketball championships in high-def video, it's unlikely you and I would be able to understand each other."
This might explain a phone conference eWEEK had on March 15, the first full day of the NCAA tournament, in which one of the people on the line was almost completely unable to be understood, due to a very weak connection.
This can be a "teachable moment" in two directions, Jacobs said. "In one direction, users need to understand the impact of their activities on their corporation and corporation resources," Jacobs said. "On the other hand, network administrators need to understand why monitoring all the traffic that goes across their network is just as important as monitoring the networking devices that connect all these things together."
The most important thing is to do traffic analysis, he said. Most network routers can supply reports that tell administrators what's going on. "It used to be, 'Why is the network down?' And the answer was a Boolean yes or no. Now, it's 'Why is the network slow?' Jacobs said. "If you don't have a window into the network, you can't answer that question."
Why Admins Need to Be Proactive
Network administrators need to be proactive and not reactive, he said. especially in this new device age.
"The network is just a service that provides something else," Jacobs said. "You load a Web page, send an email, et cetera. The other end of that is something we call end-user experience monitoring. We have software that will simulate what a user does. For example, at WhatsUpGold.com, our Website, we have a simulator that loads a few items into a shopping cart and checks out. If it takes too long, we get an alert that's going too slow, so we go and take a look at it."
While it is important to peek into the pipe from the middle to see what's going across, it's equally important to simulate what an end user would see, so you can see what they are experiencing, Jacobs said.
Learning from March Madness Network Spikes
March Madness is the kind of "network tsunami" that calls out and brings attention to networking issues such as these, Jacobs said.
"We started seeing this trend about three years ago, we observed empirical evidence in the second and third weeks of March of a big flip in traffic uplinks for corporations," Jacobs said.
The upsurge in network slowdowns during March just happened to coincide with the new 3G smartphones, mainly the iPhone.
"Internet protocol IP was always envisioned with QoS quality of service controls that would allow network administrators to say: 'Hey, make sure to allow this traffic to be always prioritized over that traffic,' so that NCAA video streaming can never knock off my VOIP telephone system," Jacobs said. "We've now got to the point where we have hardware that can actually do that."
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