How to handle bandwidth spikes during the Olympics

The 2008 Olympic Games in Beijingare just a week away. Is your IT department ready to handle the impact on your business from employees downloading online video of the opening ceremonies or the latest gymnastic feat?

Some users are already prepared, such as Brunswick Corp., a maker of boats and marine engines and fitness, bowling and billiards equipment. The company is using a technology that enables its 20,000 employees worldwide to view online content, including major sporting events, but also asks employees to watch bandwidth-hogging video after-hours to conserve costs.

Brunswick is using devices that help conserve bandwidth by accelerating and caching online content locally so that it only has to be downloaded once and all users can view it on the network, saving bandwidth resources. The devices, Blue Coat ProxySG 810 appliances, from Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Blue Coat Systems Inc., allow Brunswick to let its employees view bandwidth-hogging content (it is a sports equipment maker after all) without slowing the network or raising costs.

“The NCAA Final Four is a killer for us” in terms of bandwidth demands by employees, said Cathy McClain, a divisional CIO at Lake Forest, Ill.-based Brunswick.

“It’s been a big event for us for a couple years now.”

With the Olympic Games about to start Aug. 8, Brunswick’s IT systems are again ready, McClain said. “I am not worried about the Olympics.”

What Brunswick does beyond using the Blue Coat appliances is simple. The company tells its employees that they may watch online content using company laptops and PCs, but they should limit viewing during peak hours unless it is absolutely necessary, McClain said. The company’s users honor that request most of the time, she said. “They know if they really want to see it, they’ll see it.”

Using the Blue Coat appliances, Brunswick set up a system 20 months ago that first takes a user to what is called a “coaching [Web] page,” where the user is reminded about the off-peak policy for nonessential viewing.

A coaching page comes up whenever someone using the corporate VPN goes to a site where Brunswick finds that too much bandwidth is used and it’s not necessarily work related. Only about a dozen Web sites have been flagged with a coaching page, including, where the Olympics will be featured prominently.

Once they read the page, users can then click to continue and view the content, or not proceed, and view it after work hours. “We don’t prohibit you from going. We just ask you to make a decision before going,” McClain said.

The system, including the coaching pages, works well, McClain said. “We have a history of working with the users and communicating, and we’ll go forward,” she said of the upcoming Olympics. “They know their name won’t go on a list” for viewing the content. “It really is just an informative page,” she said of the coaching page.

“Instead of blocking sites, we tell our users, ‘we understand we’re asking you to work in off-hours when you are on the road, and that you will be using your laptop for personal stuff, too,'” McClain said. These policies allow workers to do their jobs as well as enjoy their time off, she said.

Blocking such sites entirely wouldn’t work because some employees need access to the sites for their work, she said.

Fantasy football sites are popular with Brunswick workers, she said, because it is a leisure sports company. Those sites get a coaching page to remind workers to use the site after-hours. Using the Blue Coat devices, Brunswick blocks streaming video except for some employees in marketing who need to access it for their work.

“We told people that the reason for the policy was to save money on bandwidth,” McClain said. “People are very respectful about it.”The company had a goal of saving $150,000 a year on bandwidth and succeeded, she said.

Brunswick hired Blue Coat for the project because the vendor had successfully completed an earlier project to secure a network for its 10,000-dealer network. Brunswick owns 26 U.S.-based boat companies, such as boat engine builder Mercury Marine, and businesses, including billiards and fitness training equipment. The network ties all those divisions to the company’s dealers.

“We installed it ourselves and it worked, so when we needed help with bandwidth, we talked with them again,” McClain said of Blue Coat.

Grant Murphy, director of enterprise sales at San Jose-based Secure Computing Corp., which competes with Blue Coat, said the lure of the Olympics also brings threats to enterprise users from phishing attacks and other malicious attacks on networks.

In addition to controlling bandwidth, businesses can also protect their networks and users from such attacks using targeted appliances, he said. The attacks are becoming more alluring and clever, using the Olympics or another event as bait.

“It’s getting people who normally don’t respond [to such attacks] to respond” by clicking a link in an e-mail, Murphy said. “You need a way to control it so that you’re not crushing your IT systems.”

Employers can also block such content entirely or they can set certain policies, such as allowing PCs in common areas or guest computers to have access to such content, Murphy said.

Secure Computing offers its Secure Web proxy-caching Web gateway appliances that allow companies to configure such controls, he said. The appliance can take a few hours to a few days to install.

The appliances also help with the high demands of Web 2.0 content, Murphy said. “Daily life is now becoming very much more video and bandwidth intensive,” he said.

“These are putting more pressure on business architectures.”

Joe Skorupa, an analyst at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn., said these kinds of appliances, from vendors such as Blue Coat, Secure Computing and San Diego-based Websense Inc., have a wide range of uses to protect businesses, their users and their partner companies.

“At one end, they block recreational traffic and they allow access to only approved external sites,” Skorupa said. They also allow businesses to block access entirely to inappropriate content, or to allow access to other sites at a reduced bandwidth to discourage high usage, he said. Other businesses are doing what Brunswick is doing, he said, “by asking their users to be responsible.”

“In general, you’re going to find people blocking inappropriate sites, just from a corporate responsibility situation, because they don’t want to get dragged into court over it” in abuse cases. “What we don’t see very much anymore are any companies saying to their users, ‘do whatever you want.'”

For businesses, “this is more than just a cost issue,” Skorupa said. “It’s a corporate compliance issue, and how a corporate asset is being used.”

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