Streaming Video Invades Corporate Networks

Every single day, according to Web phenom YouTube, people watch more than 1 million streamed video clips on the site.

Do you know how many your employees watch? You should. The soaring popularity of Web video can expose your company to bandwidth problems and other trouble if you don’t manage it wisely.

More video—both recreational and business-related—now eats up your network’s bandwidth than ever before thanks to several converging trends. In addition to YouTube, a growing pool of video on news and sports sites like CNN and ESPN tempts employees to dive in at work. Advertising companies push clever viral video clips to promote products from sports drinks to movies. Low-cost video cameras and editing software encourage people to produce family vacation blockbusters and share them online with friends and colleagues. On a different (and more legitimate) note, companies increasingly use video for employee training. (Video training costs less than in-person training, especially for companies with multiple, far-flung offices, and can help verticals such as the food services industry satisfy regulatory training requirements.) And as companies offer more and more video on customer-oriented websites, their own employees must review that video over the WAN.

The problem is this: Your enterprise network is a pipe that has just so much bandwidth, and if streamed video consumes too much of that pipe at once, applications run slowly and documents take a long time to open. These situations, of course, can prevent critical business from getting done expeditiously and prompt the dreaded question: What’s going on with the network? IT needs to get a handle on video before it degrades the enterprise’s ability to conduct its business. Yet industry research shows many CIOs have not done the baseline analysis to understand how much of the overall pipe is being taken up by video, business apps, regular Web browsing and other sneaky bandwidth-eaters like Skype.

Flatly ordering employees not to watch streamed sports coverage while at work may or may not be part of your bandwidth management plan; that depends on lots of factors including your corporate culture. But now’s the time to explore strategies and tools to better manage video.

Nobody Wants a Video Clog

As a CIO, maybe you’re tempted to say, “There’s an easy answer to video pollution. From now on, there won’t be any streaming video on my network. End of problem.” But at a growing number of enterprises, it’s impossible to deny employees access to video. They need it to do their jobs. And once your company starts working with video, you may be surprised how quickly the amount of it grows, CIOs say.

“Two years ago, we weren’t doing one-third of what we’re doing now with video,” says Steve Worling, manager of IT infrastructure for the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (Nascar). “We post a lot of video clips on the Intranet.”

As Nascar.com and its partners deliver ever more race highlights and driver interviews to fans, Worling’s employees must review them, which means they work with more video every day over the network. And all that video traffic must compete with the other apps on the WAN for bandwidth. Consequently, “We’re seeing those pipes get more congested,” Worling says. His peers in industries like travel and entertainment see a similar situation developing as their companies offer up more video to consumers, and their employees spend more time working with that video over the WAN.

At Nascar, Worling’s bandwidth woes are compounded by the fact that in certain departments like legal, users send a lot of large documents between offices on the WAN, taking up another big slice of the pipe. One result: Those users saw it taking longer to trade and open those important documents, says Worling. So now one of his priorities is to tackle the bandwidth problem.

Analyze This!

As an IT department tackles video, it faces several options: Block streaming video entirely, set defined limits or use a “dimmer switch” approach to ensure that critical apps get bandwidth first. To make sure employees understand the rules about video use, you’ll want to update your company’s Internet use policy. (For advice on how to do this, see “Your Internet Use Policy,” this page.) You may also need network appliances to help manage video, or a bigger Internet pipe. But the first item on your to-do list must be analysis.

Take a close look at what’s lurking on the WAN. Companies already use Web filtering technology to block offensive sites and monitor employee surfing, but it’s surprising how few have taken a cold hard look at bandwidth utilization on the WAN down to the level of specific apps and sites, says Forrester Research Senior Analyst Robert Whiteley. You need to understand which applications take what percentage of your overall bandwidth pipe, Whiteley says.

For instance, you want to know if employee visits to YouTube are taking 10 percent of that overall pipe, because you might need to make that bandwidth available for business apps—say the new Web apps you’re rolling out as part of your SOA strategy.

“It’s amazing how little quality-of-service research is done,” Whiteley says, to ensure that the apps that are most important to the business get the necessary amount of bandwidth to keep them humming. Just 11 percent to 13 percent of IT organizations analyze bandwidth usage down to the detail of individual applications, according to Forrester.

Companies such as Cisco, Expand and Packeteer have long offered bandwidth management products, such as Cisco’s WAN optimization hardware and software solutions, which can help you monitor and manage bandwidth allocation. But now they are addressing the video trend. Cisco offers software that gets added to its WAE appliances or its widely deployed Integrated Services Routers to specifically manage bandwidth problems related to video. The software, according to Cisco, will compress and cache the video (so it doesn’t travel repeatedly over the WAN) and eliminate unnecessary “chattiness” between apps and video (like instructions and status updates).

Tool Talk

A new breed of appliances from companies such as Blue Coat offer caching and compression, plus the ability to ensure oversight of all video traffic and then simplify that oversight. These boxes, which usually live at the Internet gateway on the network, offer a wide variety of rules and policies that can be applied and managed. Blue Coat’s SG appliances give you the option of blocking all streaming video, video from specific sites or just from parts of sites. (For instance, you might allow CNNMoney but not CNNSI.) Or you can choose to block all streaming sites except a specific group during business hours.

Then there’s the dimmer switch approach: letting streaming video take only a certain percentage of your overall bandwidth—after that, users will have to live with slower video.

In the future, says Joe Skorupa, a Gartner research VP, CIOs can expect to see more multifunction WAN appliances that will handle caching, compression, application performance monitoring, blocking, security and maybe VPN tasks.

Another reason to consider an appliance is if your company has centralized servers to simplify Sarbanes-Oxley compliance by putting all backup data in one location. In that case your users are now sending more and more data over the WAN rather than grabbing it from a local server. This can cause documents or apps to slow down.

Nascar’s Worling, who experienced just this problem, is adding bandwidth optimization appliances from Juniper to Nascar’s network (Juniper’s WXC 500 and WXC 250 models). But that change alone won’t be enough to address Nascar’s needs. If you have a large amount of business-related video traffic, an appliance will often help, but you may also need to upgrade your Internet pipes.

Time for a Bigger Pipe?

In some cases, setting rules with users and implementing network appliances will give you adequate control over the video situation. But for companies with heavy video consumers, you may also decide you need a better Internet connection.

Nascar came to this conclusion and recently installed a 20Mb Internet connection, replacing a 3Mb T1 in its Daytona office at about the same monthly cost. (Nascar’s provider, Brighthouse, brings fiber right to the building and offers competitive rates.) Nascar currently has a 5Mb connection in its Concord, N.C., office and is looking for alternatives to T1 for its other offices in Charlotte, N.C., New York City and Los Angeles.

Later this year, Worling will also deploy multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) network infrastructure to tie offices together with 1.54Mbps data connections.

“[MPLS] will allow all the offices to talk to each other without routing through one central point like the Daytona office,” Worling says. “We currently share point-to-point T1s that point back to the Daytona office with our voice applications.” With the MPLS design, data from branch offices won’t have to travel back and forth to Daytona as much, which improves the WAN bandwidth picture.

Still not convinced you need to change the way you manage video? Well, clogged pipes and lethargic apps are not the only problems the video explosion is introducing to the enterprise. Does the word storage get your attention? How about security?

Wait...It Gets Worse

As companies create more video, IT must store it. And video files aren’t small. Worling must store a growing amount of video that Nascar uses to do crash analysis. His storage requirements and costs are rising, so he must get more efficient. “We just bought a SAN and are consolidating some storage,” Worling says.

At Purdue University, Interim VP for Information Technology and CIO Gerry McCartney says it’s hard to forecast the video clip volume on the network in the next few years, and this complicates his storage planning.

“We’re seeing an increase in e-mail storage, and we attribute part of that to videos sent via e-mail,” he says. Purdue students currently get a storage limit of 500MB (after that they must clean out their mailboxes), but the college may increase that limit to 1GB, partly due to the video factor, he says. That means Purdue’s e-mail servers require more storage.

The university is also having to increase storage due to video training that it’s using to teach employees ERP applications, McCartney says.

And in addition to storage, security could become a video-related headache for CIOs, says Forrester’s Whiteley.

Today’s hackers are writing small, nimble pieces of spyware and virus code that they can quickly modify to work with various types of programs, including IM, VoIP or the player software that people use to view video clips, Whiteley says. Right now, the risk is theoretical, he says, but should be on a CIO’s radar.

In one of the first examples of malicious code being delivered via video tools, antispyware vendor Webroot reported in August that it located a Trojan horse program called Zlob, pretending to be an update to Windows Media Player. Users clicking on video clips were asked to download the update, which included the Zlob malware, and it proceeded to seek out other malware to install on those PCs, according to Webroot. The problem with malware like this is you typically don’t know what the intent of the virus writers is—to install “bot” software to control the PC, to look for data on your network or just to cause mischief.

Bottom line: CIOs will need to watch how the amount of video on the network evolves and be prepared to change the rules accordingly, says Matthew Miszewski, CIO of Wisconsin. “Our normal Web filter blocks inappropriate traffic,” he says, but he hasn’t had to make a move like forbidding ESPN during business hours for bandwidth reasons. “We’ve thought about it,” he says. “But I don’t think it would be a popular move. If it gets out of hand, we have the ability to lock it down.”

Do you?

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Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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