How to Not Bring the Network to Its Knees During March Madness

NCAA basketball games being streamed to individual users' desktops spell trouble for network administrators.

With CBS Sports heavily promoting its offer to stream all 63 of the March Madness college basketball games for free across the Internet, the potential for lost productivity and business is enormous for many enterprises.

With the first round games slated to begin on March 20, network administrators across the country should be gearing up to handle the network traffic spikes that will surely result from individual users accessing the games from their desktops.

How much bandwidth the rich streaming content can chew up depends on several factors. "It can take upwards of 640K bps of a network for a single stream. Multiply that by 20 or 100 people, and it doesn't take too many of those to really cause disruption in business-important applications," said Mark Urban, director of product management at Packeteer.

For previous March Madness contests that were streamed for free, network monitoring company NetScout Systems found in its own internal tests that each streaming session took up about one fifth of a T-1 line, said Eileen Haggerty, NetScout director of product marketing.

There are a range of tools at the network administrator's disposal to help minimize the impact of users streaming content such as March Madness games. Those range from simple URL filters, used most often to block access to porn or gambling sites, to packet classification and policy tools provided by companies like Packeteer with its PacketShaper offerings.

"We discover all the applications, including streaming video, we show what the utilization is and map that back to the users, so we give visibility into what's happening," Urban said. "That works hand in hand with our quality-of-service policies. Say you want to cap that [traffic] at 5 to 10 percent of the network at full utilization. We give you the policy tools to provision whatever you feel is useful," he said.

Web filtering company St. Bernard Software provides similar capabilities.

"We have a real-time monitor to see exactly where everyone is surfing ... And we can establish policies centrally and distribute those across multiple appliances in remote sites," said Steve Yin, vice president of worldwide sales and marketing for St. Bernard Software.

At the other end of the network traffic management spectrum are probes that provide information on all the types of traffic traversing a link. While those can be expensive to put in all locations across an enterprise, NetScout Systems sees most customers deploying those in headquarters and data centers, "where a lot of Internet traffic flows through," Haggerty said.

"You just have to instrument the Internet segments and you can see changes in traffic patterns that show streaming HTTP. IT just has to run that one session, see where it goes, capture the packet, find the label and they can track it," she said.

So what kind of policies should IT put in place around such recreational traffic?

Packeteer recommends limiting recreational traffic to 10 percent of available network bandwidth.

St. Bernard Software has seen policies among its 4,500 or so customers that are all over the map, Yin said. "Some companies just flat-out don't allow it and block out all high-bandwidth sites and have strict Internet access policies. At the other end of continuum some are wide open and as long as users are not going to malware sites they are open to any kind of surfing," he said.

In between that, "We've seen some companies set up an area [where users can watch] streaming media and apportion a part of the bandwidth, rather than everybody doing it from their desk," he added.

NetScout's Haggerty offered a simpler policy proposal. "For my money, for good employee moral, set up some TVs in the cafeteria or lounge and let [employees] turn it on. It's not a 9-to-5 world anymore. What's 15 minutes if they watch some of the game and then go back to their office?"

At the very least, it behooves IT departments to educate users on the impact their surfing actions have on an expensive resource. Most employees have no idea how much streaming videos affect applications' availability.

After all, the last thing a bank in Indiana wants to see happen when the Hoosiers are scheduled to play is for all the deposits and withdrawals traversing a branch link to get hosed.