Prevent a network own goal

Nigel Hawthorn of Blue Coat on the dangers posed to corporate networks by next year's football World Cup

Tags: Blue Coat Systems IncorporatedFIFA World Cup 2010Network optimisationUnited Arab Emirates
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Prevent a network own goal Network managers need to take action to protect infrastructure, particularly at the branch level, says Hawthorn.
By  Nigel Hawthorn Published  November 4, 2009

Following the first ever, online-only, live streaming of a FIFA World Cup qualifier match, England's 1-0 defeat to Ukraine, Blue Coat's EMEA Marketing VP Nigel Hawthorn, looks into the implications that live online video streaming events could have on an organisation's network infrastructure ahead of next summer's World Cup.

The 2010 World Cup in South Africa promises worldwide coverage like never before, with many broadcasters looking to offer live video streaming of all matches from the contest.

Though a small number of matches were shown online in the 2006 World Cup, next year will mark the first time that so many minutes of football will be streamed live, both by officially sanctioned broadcasters and through other, unofficial channels.

More importantly, the success of YouTube and four years improvement in online delivery of live coverage of major events has led to an assumption on the part of users that the quality will be good to the desktop - including desktops in the work place.

The BBC is one such broadcaster, which will stream all of the matches that it has rights to show. Director of BBC Sport Roger Mosey, who commented ahead of the World Cup in 2006: "We know a lot of online viewing is done in the office, so we suspect this will allow people both to do their job and to keep up with the very latest action."

Now, at the risk of sounding like a World Cup party pooper, we need to consider the impact on the organisation and the network from the amount of bandwidth that will be eaten up by employees watching live 90 minute matches on their desktop PCs next summer.

Business critical apps and employee productivity

With the qualifiers now nearly at an end, IT managers from organisations of all sizes will be bracing themselves for demands on their networks and internet gateway that are potentially greater than anything in the past, particularly with next summer's tournament likely to capture unprecedented employee interest.

With only one or two hours time zone difference between the Middle East and South Africa, employees are also likely to be watching in prime office working hours.

As workers turn to the web for live match coverage during work hours, organisations should certainly be wary about a potential drain on employee performance and productivity, but press forward to protect against a greater threat - the impact on branch offices and applications.

Usually individuals are blissfully unaware of the performance implications that continuous live streaming has on the company's internet gateway or the wide area network (WAN) link that connects their branch office location to a corporate data centre or centralised Internet access point.

An IT manager's internet gateway can be quickly fouled up by staff accessing live video streaming. In addition, slender WAN links to branch offices can be invaded by football fever so that internal business critical traffic is impaired.

This leads onto one of the most critical areas for the effects of employees turning to the web for next summer's World Cup coverage, the branch offices. This is because many organisations' internet access is centralised and backhauled inbound internet traffic is delivered to branch offices over the WAN that links them to the data center or headquarters.

Therefore, the added load of multiple instances of a live match stream could swamp the WAN links to branch offices, making business-critical applications and communication exceedingly slow or stop completely.

Already these WAN links are under considerable strain, due in part to centralisation of servers and applications away from the branch office. Performance of remotely hosted applications and files is sluggish at best, requiring WAN optimisation solutions to compensate for burgeoning network limitations. Continuous video streaming of live match access will exacerbate this situation.

What can organisations do to manage World Cup fever?

There are a number of different approaches that IT managers can take in order to ensure that their internet gateway is fully available for business use of the internet, rather than overwhelmed by online World Cup fever.

Certain organisations may take a strict approach by attempting to block web access to all known sites that stream the World Cup live. By using web filtering systems, IT management can block access to global sports sites, though users are likely to be unhappy and may still spend time attempting to circumvent the blocking.

A second option would be to block the protocols used for streaming, however, this may include all RealPlayer, Microsoft and Flash streams and in doing so, block internal streams, streaming news and standard parts of web sites, interfering with work-related web information.

Instead of either of the above approaches, organisations may look to adopt a more flexible attitude that keeps employee morale high and minimises any World Cup disruption. IT management can improve their network infrastructure to reduce stream usage, optimise streaming data and allow users to time-shift the matches to be during normal breaks in the working day, as follows.

Firstly, bandwidth management devices at the internet egress point can be set to define one stream provider as approved and given a high priority (management then encourage employees to use that stream), other streams are lower priority or blocked.

Secondly, appliances can be installed within the organisation's network to split the streams, meaning that one stream request can be sent to multiple users simultaneously. This greatly reduces the upstream bandwidth required.

Thirdly, WAN optimisation appliances that support streaming data can be deployed between offices to cache and optimise the protocols between them.

Finally, many of the stream splitting appliances can also cache the streams, allowing users to time-shift and watch the game later.

Happily, this doesn't mean installing four appliances, many devices can deliver multiple benefits in one.

In this way, management can allow video content whilst minimising the load on the internet gateway or branch office by caching locally through a proxy appliance. Employees are then contented and the World Cup shouldn't impact access of business-related video or content on websites.

The World Cup only comes around once ever four years and should be cherished. However, whilst we all want to keep abreast of all the latest action, organisations may want to stop and consider the impact next summer could have on their network resources and look at sensible ways in which to manage this down to an acceptable amount.

Above all, whether it's England vs. Brazil on a Wednesday at midday or Denmark vs. Ivory Coast Monday at 3pm in the afternoon, organisations must ensure that non-essential application traffic does not interfere with crucial business operations.

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