March Madness: a Corporate Network 'Perfect Storm'

Free streaming video of the NCAA basketball tournament could take a huge toll on corporate networks, clogging up bandwidth and slowing down email, services and productivity.
March Madness may have a double meaning this year.

The 19-day-long NCAA Division 1 basketball championship tournament could take a huge toll on many corporate networks. Beyond being a productivity drain on employees worked up over the daily barrage of games and office pool activity, the availability of free video streams this year may clog up bandwidth, slow Web-based applications, and drive IT administrators to distraction.

''Oh, people are going to have some problems,'' says Zeus Kerravala, vice president of enterprise research at the Yankee Group, an industry analyst firm based in Cambridge, Mass. ''The Masters caused some systems to go down but March Madness is one of the biggest events of the year. And unlike the Super Bowl, it's not [just] on the weekend and it's during the day. It's the perfect storm of situations.''

Kerravala says if IT administrators don't have policies and technology in place to keep workers from watching the games over streaming video in the office, there could be serious trouble brewing.

''It would almost be better if people went to a sports bar and just got out of the office,'' he adds.

Some industry watchers are warning that this year March Madness could mean bigger trouble than usual. CBS Corp., the network airing the whole event, is offering up the free video streams of the 56 games in the first three tournament rounds, which last through March 25. And CBS executives obviously are aware that people will be trying to sneak some game time in their cubicles or behind closed office doors. They've installed a ''boss button'' in the video so when viewers click on it, a fake spreadsheet pops up -- making any boss passing by think there's actually some work going on.

And with a Gallup poll showing that 41 percent of Americans consider themselves college basketball fans, there will be a lot of sneaking going on.

Barring the Gates

''It limits our ability to do the work we need to do,'' says Markus Weidner, director of IT at Pennoni Associates, Inc., a Philadelphia-based civil engineering firm with 700 employees. ''If all this streaming media is running and it has nothing to do with engineering... it's detrimental to other people getting real work done.''

Weidner figures if he had three workers in a remote office watching a 300 kb/second feed, it would take up more than half of a typical T1 circuit. ''Then you're saying to everybody else, 'OK, you get 40 percent of the bandwidth. Sorry. That's all that's remaining.' It's not like other people in the office would know where it's going. They'd just think it's slow and that's a bad reflection of us in corporate IT.''

To deal with these kind of situations, Weidner adopted Websense Enterprise from San Diego, Calif.-based Websense Inc., which gives him the ability to filter out certain kinds of websites, like sports or pornographic sites. Weidner also noted that he won't have to block the entire CBS site. He'll simply block streaming video -- and that will filter it out, no matter where it's coming from.

''At this point, it's a best practice,'' he says. ''It's an active deterrent. It blocks some sites and warns [users] about going to others. Certainly, you have to be careful so you don't give people the impression that you're not just sitting there watching their activities all day. If we sent out emails that said we detected them accessing certain sites, that would bother people. But if people know there's an application in place and it's not some person watching them and making a decision about what they're doing, they'll have less of a problem with it.''

Jeff Falcon, a network security engineer at CDW Corp., a technology product and service provider based in Vernon Hills, Ill., says IT administrators also need to be aware of other problems that March Madness could bring inside their perimeters -- malware and spyware.

''It brings a heightened alert for a lot of administrators in terms of security,'' says Falcon. ''We look at events that expose a lot of risks to organizations... You have to be aware of spam that says 'watch this streaming video of the game', but it takes the user to a malicious website.

''A lot of organizations just aren't prepared to handle this kind of spike in activity and in threat level,'' he adds. ''It's a time of year when an IT director can expect some sort of threat or outbreak that could hit their network and bring down applications and email.''

Protecting the Network

Kerravala says the key to keeping your network safe -- and your employees more productive -- during events like March Madness is to set up policies and technology to deal with it. In an organization of 5,000 workers, having just 10 people watching streaming video is going to impact Internet traffic. ''It's like driving on the interstate during rush hour,'' he says. ''Nobody is moving that fast... If you're in a branch office and you need to access the data center, these people watching the game could actually create a situation where all traffic slows to a halt.''

First off, Kerravala says IT administrators need to make sure users understand corporate policies about Internet access in the workplace. Is it a work-only policy? Is personal usage limited at all? They may have told employees what this policy was at one point -- don't be afraid to remind them, and frequently, especially before something like March Madness begins.

''Most people are pretty good,'' he says. ''If they knew the problems they could cause, they'd be a little more careful. Education is a big part of it. And that needs to be followed up with corporate policies. In your firewall, you can disallow streaming media during March Madness week. Cut it off at the source, or you can put a bandwidth optimization device in. That will allow streaming media through but only allow them to have a certain percentage of the bandwidth. It might make watching the game slow, but that's not really the company's problem.''

Kerravala also points out that some companies can't limit streaming video across the board. A brokerage business, for instance, may not be able to do without it. If that's the case, the administrator needs to get granular and make exceptions for particular users.

If You Can't Beat 'em...

Scot Wingo, chief executive officer of ChannelAdvisor Corp., a software company based in Morrisville, N.C., says he has 150 employees and he'd guess that easily 90 percent of them are basketball fans -- big basketball fans. ''Being in this area, it's like oxygen and water,'' he says, noting that the University of North Carolina is in the area, along with N.C. State, Duke and Wake Forrest. ''We work really hard to keep it good spirited so it's a lot of fun.''

These people aren't just mildly interested in the game. For them, it's all about the game. Wingo chuckled when asked if there was an office pool. He says most people are in at least two office pools and then they're also in betting pools with friends and neighbors.

So what do you do when your employees are ravenous fans and the games are being played during the day?

You bring in a 50-inch plasma TV, of course.

At least that's what Wingo did. The CEO says his employees can watch the games on the big TV he set up in the break room or they can watch it over streaming video at their desks. They have really big pipes going into the company so there's plenty of bandwidth for some at-desk-game-watching, but Wingo thinks the 5-inch plasma TV will draw most people into the break room... and since they have wireless, they can answer emails and do other work from there.

In our area, technical talent is really tight so we view this as a recruiting tool,'' says Wingo. ''Hey, come here and be one of us. You have work to do but we're not micromanagers so if you want to go into the break room and watch part of the game, that's OK.''






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