Feature

Taking control of your bandwidth

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Unless you were holed up in the Big Brother house, the World Cup will not have failed to affect you recently.

With many employees having access to a computer at their desk that often has a faster internet connection than any home-based system, IT managers had to prepare for potential network meltdown as England matches were broadcast over the internet by the BBC.

Corporate internet access is already an issue many organisations have had to tackle from the point of view of securing corporate boundaries, data and systems. As one IT manager noted, there is a real business issue behind the threat of network meltdown because of surges in demand.

Some experts recommend IT directors develop additional strategies for balancing recreational use of network bandwidth with that of its mission-critical role in order to avoid affecting core applications, transactional systems and day-to-day operations.

Modifying existing policies for internet access is a fairly simple option to ensure events like the World Cup do not affect network capacity.

But as Richard Warley, UK managing director of web hosting provider Savvis, suggested, “It is best to have a culture where people respect the company’s resources. There is no point in regulating the technology without self-regulation. The next question is how do we monitor and control it?”

Monitoring has its own associated business and technical issues. There is the issue of home or remote working, and the temptation to monitor productivity levels on key match days.

To achieve any level of command over a network, most industry experts suggest tracking traffic by the port number, IP address or data packet as the best ways to control and balance bandwidth use.

There are various products in the market that promise to achieve this level of visibility and control. However, most offer quality of service control through dedicated software that links into the firewall, routers or other network components.

Clive Longbottom, Quocirca service director, advised companies looking for a technology-based approach to better network traffic management to start from the ground up.

“The first thing to do is to stop anything from happening in the first place by blocking ports and whitelisting IP addresses,” he said.

“You can whitelist applications like Windows Media Player, which will not allow users to run it without permission.”

He said the next step is to use tools that deliver quality of service levels for all types of traffic, including the multimedia streams involved in work-related activities like video-conferencing.

“Within the firewall, standards like the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ 802.1p and 802.1q, combined with multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) management tools, allow you to tag packets for dynamic bandwidth allocation. Packet sniffer tools can also actually find out what is happening in the networks.”

According to Longbottom, organisations that decide to allow some access to non work-related applications and websites over their networks should set proxies to avoid multicasting the same stream.

“If people want to watch TV streaming over the wide area network, then it is best to have only three streams on the backbone for the 300 or so who may be accessing the Wan,” he said.

“Also bear in mind that most people are not streaming through the browser. They go to plug-ins. So you may need to choose ports on the fly to match streaming on the fly. That would be a superb way of doing it if you can afford it.”

At any rate, all the industry experts and users advocate a multi-level system of control, monitoring and management in place across your networks, across your firewalls and over your intranet.

“It is never going to be simple. Large companies can afford to use products like Packeteer, but smaller ones need to lock down applications and be reactive,” said Longbottom.

Along with a smart selection of traffic management technologies, if you tailor your policies, strategies and networking technology according to the business needs of the network first and foremost, meltdown need never be an issue, even if England were to somehow reach a World Cup final.

Nathan Hays, IT manager at law firm Osborne Clarke, said, “It is only recently that internet technology has become pervasive in the workplace, but I remember that the scramble for information around the time of the 9/11 attacks put pressure on our networks.”

For the World Cup, Osborne Clarke shifted some of its IT resources towards more granular network management for the 500 employees in the UK, in addition to those in its German and US offices.

“We took the opportunity to remind people of policy before the tournament and then looked to the technology to back that up,” said Hays.

“Certainly we looked at blocking content, but it is not that easy to differentiate between valid and invalid streaming content.

“You can monitor the profiles of employee access and the content being streamed and try and match the two. We use the management tools for our firewalls along with proxy logs.” The company also uses hardware from Lightspeed, which offers network traffic management systems, including tools for monitoring and reporting, content filtering, spam blocking, security and bandwidth management.

Its management product allows the filtering of web traffic by content at the packet level, so that sites can be blocked altogether or the bandwidth allocated to restricted sites can be controlled dynamically.
Lightspeed also claims to be able to block peer-to-peer traffic, regardless of port, and file-type downloads by extension.

“One product is not enough for us. It is not an easy thing to monitor and identify all internet activity,” said Hays.
“It needs expertise in MPLS configuration and time spent on monitoring, with adequate enough tools to get a profile of the bottleneck.

“If we take a significant hit on bandwidth and downloading of data, we have the opportunity to take action and block streaming – although we have not had to do that.”

From the reports and surveys conducted by Packeteer, a provider of Wan application optimisation products, at least 60%-70% of network managers do not know what is traversing their networks.

Mike Hemes, managing director of Packeteer, said, “Traffic is typically classified at port number and IP address level. The problem with broadcasts like the World Cup is that they are within a browser, usually using port 80. Mission-critical applications using that port cannot perform at their best.”

He said the most common response by network managers is to try and get more control over traffic or to increase the bandwidth.

“But that does not solve the problem. It just gives traffic from a blocked port the opportunity to move to an open one. You need to monitor the movement of packets across the network; applications work in sessions and flows.”
Hemes added that a bigger issue may be what is flowing over your intranet, where the firewalls do not reach, and advised companies to “invest in mechanisms to control how applications are delivered over the intranet too”.

Services, like BT’s Assured Application Infrastructure (AAI), are being introduced to the market to offer more control of MPLS-based networks.

John Leigh, head of marketing for the outsourcing division at BT Global Services, said, “The network is the only place you can track how applications are performing.

“The next step is the ability to measure business process and activity as shown by the IT performance. AAI can give you some of the elements of service oriented infrastructure, where individual services that applications can call on are actually built into the network.”

This, claims Leigh, will provide better levels of control to spread traffic loads across networks for guaranteed availability, faster response and the ability to quickly manage bottlenecks.

According to Peter Hullemand, networks analyst at research firm IDC, companies should be looking to upgrade or extend their network management capability due to the increased traffic over the network as a result of voice over IP, IP-TV and eventually, high definition streams.

“Streaming media and voice traffic is limited now, but what about high definition?” he said.

“Most companies already block peer-to-peer traffic, and are developing management policies that look into layers four to seven of their networks for security reasons.

“If they are doing this already then they have most likely already looked at productivity issues.” Perhaps the World Cup is one event that might make organisations revisit this issue.

The legalities of employee monitoring

Julian Hemming, head of employment law at legal firm Osborne Clarke, was responsible for advising clients on dealing with issues resulting from employee monitoring during the World Cup.

He said, “It is incumbent on the employer to have a fairly light touch in the first place, stating policy early, and then maybe offering alternative methods to the internet for watching events.”

Hemming advised that employers may lawfully monitor the activities of employees that are counter-productive or seem excessive for personal use, but must clearly state the reasons, nature and extent for it with an acceptable use policy.

“Organisations should not have to put a policy in place just to react to the World Cup,” he said.
“There has to be a balance struck between maintaining productivity levels and allowing people to participate in or follow major events at any time.”

In an advisory note sent out to clients before the event last month, his firm advised: “Monitoring should normally be limited to an examination of internet sites visited, number of hits, duration of time spent on the internet and logs of telephone numbers.

“Avoid opening e-mails that are clearly marked ‘personal’ and bear in mind that spot checks or audits are less intrusive on an employee’s privacy than continuous monitoring.”

Finally, Hemming urged employers to also consider whether to monitor staff that work flexibly.

“Unlike with workplace-based monitoring, employers would struggle to find any sort of legal justification under the UK's privacy laws to monitor the activities of their temporary or permanent home-based staff,” he said.


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This was first published in July 2006

 

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