When Adding More Bandwidth Isn’t the Answer

Topics: Compliance, Cybersecurity, Managed IT Services, Security

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. There has been an exponential growth in the use of social media, an uptick in the number of remote workers, and a deluge of cloud-based applications and online entertainment options available today.

There is also the expectation that Internet connectivity be ubiquitous. The speed and flexibility of a corporate network should at least match, if not surpass, what users have come to expect in their homes. The combination of these factors has made managing bandwidth for most organizations a very challenging proposition — a constant tug of war between what IT can provide cost effectively and what the users demand. More often than not this culminates in a variety of network performance issues.

User perception aside, there is a significant business impact resulting from slow networks and unreliable connectivity. The problem can manifest itself in impaired performance of critical business applications, loss of productivity for both on-site and remote workers, increases in help desk calls, and higher costs associated with frequent bandwidth and infrastructure upgrades. If your hosted association management system (AMS) is unresponsive and your executive director is waiting on reports for the board meeting, then you are all too familiar with this scenario.

The easy answer to all these problems may be to increase bandwidth. Costs have come down substantially in the last few years, so it may seem like a simple decision.However, by just upgrading the bandwidth, you may only fix the “symptoms” (the slowness) but not the actual “cause” of the problem. 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, nullifying any major bandwidth upgrade. This is where your network usage should be evaluated and an appropriate bandwidth management strategy should be put in place.

The three core elements of any effective bandwidth management strategy are policy, visibility, and control.

Policy

Developing and communicating a consistent internet usage policy is the first nontechnical step an organization can take to effectively manage the flow of its network traffic. Policies outline what users can and cannot use the Internet for and help establish a baseline for responsible user behavior. However, a policy alone is rarely successful as it relies on users to police themselves and an honor system that typically fails around, say, major sporting events such as the Masters or World Cup.To address this issue visibility plays a vital role.

Visibility

I am quite alarmed at the number of associations that are concerned about their network speed but have no insight into how their network resources are being used.. According to the Application Usage and Threat Report1published by Palo Alto Networks in March 2013; 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 bandwidth. How does your organization stack up against these numbers? If you have no idea, read on.

How to increase visibility:

    • Through the use of built-in tools available with your existing infrastructure. 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.

Control

Once you have visibility into how your bandwidth is being used, the next step is implementing some form of control. My philosophy on bandwidth control falls into two approaches: autocratic or populist.

The autocratic approach involves identifying noncritical applications and blocking them. This typically results in the greatest short-term improvement in network performance by restricting access to many popular applications (e.g. Pandora, iTunes, ESPN, streaming sites, and social media). However, this can create unforeseen issues. For instance, YouTube and Facebook may be channels used by your events or membership staff to post conference videos and association updates. Moreover, completely blocking such applications can create a level of resentment among employees that may be contrary to the culture of your organization.

In the association marketplace, we have seen greater success with a more populist approach to bandwidth management. This approach is focused more on prioritizing business critical applications and de-prioritizing the ones with little strategic importance. Your decision may be to give social media just 10 percent of the total bandwidth or restrict streaming videos to five percent of your bandwidth, while prioritizing access to your AMS and website. The ability to implement such granular controls is rarely something that is available out of the box and requires investment in hardware solutions.

Here are 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, such as Riverbed, are especially helpful for organizations that have a lot of remote office workers or multiple office locations.

The Internet has revolutionized our daily lives, and nowhere is that more evident than in the modern workplace. Organizations’ demands for efficient, high-performing networks and connectivity will only increase with time, as will the challenges of effectively managing data flow through your network. It is imperative that you have a comprehensive and long-term approach to these challenges, one that incorporates policies, tools for visibility and control, and one that is in sync with your association’s structure, internet policy, budget, 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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1Application Usage and Threat Report (10th Edition, January 2013)