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There's an English-language idiom that warns against the perils of greed: "Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered." It's a cautionary phrase, a pork-centric version of "Quit while you're ahead." There's an IT translation here when it comes to matters of network performance, bandwidth consumption and related technology resource issues. Usage is inevitable, but beware the usage hogs. Failing to identify and deal with them proactively can cause problems across a network.
"The downsides are simple," said Stephane Bourque, CEO of Incognito Software. "Not understanding and managing data hogs will eventually lead to service degradation for those that reflect the more normal usage patterns."
For Bourque, most roads these days lead back to video. In his view, it's the most gluttonous of data hogs, and as a result the one most likely to cause headaches. Bourque's firm counts multiple system operators (MSOs) -- industry-speak for the cable companies -- and other Internet service providers (ISPs) among its customers. Video delivered via the Web is the application that keeps their executives up at night.
The same principle holds true on a much smaller scale. Small and midsize businesses (SMBs), many of whom rely on those same ISPs for broadband access, can experience usage and performance problems when a handful of hogs gobble up the majority of their network resources.
Video might be the biggest culprit, but it's not the only one. Businesses do so much online these days -- voice, email, productivity, accounting and customer service -- that there are constant demands on corporate bandwidth and related resources. Although the hogs themselves might be applications, it is almost always users who are generating the bandwidth-eating activity. That doesn't make them bad people, per se. There's a decent chance the offending employees don't even realize they're doing anything "wrong." But on a company network with limited resources, they are.
Among the problems that can occur as a result, according to Bourque: "Slower access speeds, pixelation on [video] services, more calls to the help center, [and] poorer [wireless] Internet access." Network monitoring and measurement is important. "[Adminstrators] need to be able to point the finger at the right source when the problem occurs. Not measuring may cause you to wrongly diagnose the source of the problem," Bourque said. "Measuring could also allow a provider to take proactive steps and perform network re-balancing in such a way to dissipate bandwidth hogs' effect on the network."
Legitimate hogs, such as business-critical applications that employees can't do their job without, could be mitigated with a virtual LAN or another method of segregating users. A creative department that works with and moves a high volume of large media files -- video included, of course -- could effectively be set apart from the rest of the organization, for example.
Then there are the less-than-legitimate bandwidth hogs. The employee who co-opts the corporate network to download high-definition movies or watch YouTube videos might not just be a productivity problem, but an IT problem as well. Even applications that might be acceptable for some employees, such as listening to music while working, might cause an issue when streamed online. Whether productive or not, such usage can be effectively managed by putting "the proper policies in place to address the behavior," Bourque said.
At the same time, IT pros could waste time and energy trying to solve problems that might better be left alone. We asked Bourque to weigh in on a variety of likely bandwidth hogs and help sort reality from myth. Read on to find out what might be bogging down your network.
The growing number of video services delivered online -- from YouTube to Netflix to Amazon and so on down a long list -- are "by far the largest bandwidth user," said Bourque. In workplaces, there's the added rub that an employee streaming or downloading copious amounts of video might also be shirking job duties -- unless those duties actually involve large amounts of online video. The burden that video places on resources isn't likely to abate soon, either: "The video segment will be the single most demanding bandwidth application [going forward]," Bourque said.
You didn't think we'd make it through this without a hedge, did you? Videoconferencing is a tricky one to sort out because, although it can indeed require significant network resources, it comes in different shapes and sizes. Hosting your own videoconferences, especially in high-definition, will likely be bandwidth-intensive. Moving it to the cloud can ease some pain, as can reducing the resolution below HD, which is particularly resource-intensive. Remote workers and virtual offices that rely on retail broadband to keep everyone connected should actually be OK from a videoconferencing standpoint. That's because peak activity on those networks occurs outside of normal business hours, according to Bourque. "Teleworking is on the rise and therefore, home use of teleworking is also on the rise," he said. "But these are not the peak ISP usage hours."
Among the beefs some people have in the bring-your-own-device age: Employees who use company Wi-Fi to save on their personal wireless data plan. It's not necessarily an enormous bandwidth problem, at least not yet. "This is a problem on the rise, and it could get bigger since most wireless providers are looking to offload 3G [and] 4G traffic from their very expensive cell towers onto more affordable Wi-Fi networks that seem ubiquitous these days," Bourque said. "People also seem to stream more video content these days on their portable devices as their video playback capabilities are near perfect."
Listening to music can be one of those personal activities that peacefully coexists in a professional environment. But the rise of online music can cause problems on the back-end, even when the music itself isn't bothering anyone. Bourque notes that audio requires only a small fraction of the bandwidth necessary to deliver video, but nonetheless it can add up -- especially when streaming services are left on continuously. "Services like Grooveshark and iTunes Match are now allowing subscribers to keep their entire music library in the cloud, and [they] require streaming back from the cloud in many instances," said Bourque. "Internet radio use is on the rise as well."
Social media might be everywhere, but it doesn't have to be a huge bandwidth hog -- except in extreme cases, which likely include video streaming. It isn't ignorable -- "the human need for connectivity is endless," Bourque notes -- but proper policy and management should keep it from becoming a problem. "More companies are monitoring use of social networking at the office and electing to either limit or prevent its use during business hours," said Bourque. "Social media should not be a large contributor to enterprise Internet traffic."
Once upon a time, that graybeard application we call email would have cracked the list of top bandwidth hogs. But although it might still cause productivity headaches, it has moved down the list of problem areas from a network perspective. "Email is now a distant bandwidth user. Whether we talk about [on-premises] or cloud-based solutions, email simply does not require the bandwidth that other types of applications require," said Bourque. "Even if email was the number-one data producer a few years ago, video is now king."
A certain amount of upload and download activity is obviously to be expected on any network. Moving files around -- both inside the corporate perimeter and beyond -- is just a fact of daily life for most businesses these days. Heavy-duty files can start to take a toll. Even relatively light files such as simple documents or spreadsheets can become cumbersome when moved en masse, as with a batch download from Dropbox (pictured) or a similar service. "File sharing and downloading still occupy important segments of bandwidth consumption," said Bourque.
The increasing reliance on cloud applications is a reasonable place to look in search of bandwidth hogs. Most likely, it will be the sum total of cloud usage rather than a single app that stresses a network, as with this SMB that had to increase its available bandwidth as a result of a significant shift into hosted platforms. Bourque calls it a "semi-reality" because not all applications are created equal. "It all depends on the apps themselves," said Bourque. "Empirical data must be gathered for each application before performing an educated guess to see if a specific application uses a lot of bandwidth."
Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) systems have become a popular choice for phone and other communications in the office. Add to that the ready availability of free or freemium platforms such as Skype that enable easy video calling, and you've got a potential bandwidth hog during peak usage periods -- one that shows no sign of subsiding in the near future. "VoIP use is increasing and Skype users are not leaving the service," Bourque said.