Dec 11 2009

Bandwidth Boost: Making the Most of Your Network

Learn pointers on how to make sure your agency stays online and on task.

Bandwidth demands continue to creep upward. Transactional websites, agency portals and intranets, Voice over IP systems, offsite backup, mission-critical web-based applications, data sharing — all of these have become central to modern administrative operations. With that much data on the move, a bottleneck at any point in your network can do more than slow down your day, it can bring your agency to its knees.

Keeping all this up and running demands a studious attention to detail. Sites and intranets need to be optimized to make the best use of the bandwidth available. Extra bandwidth must be provisioned as needed. Perhaps most important, onsite and outsourced services must be painstakingly balanced: While too little capacity can cost money in lost sales and productivity, paying for too much is just wasteful. Finding that sweet spot where demand and capacity meet is the challenge. These tips can point you in the right direction:

1. Use the Internet wisely.

Matt Williams, founder and chief technology officer of IPeak Networks, recommends moving as much of your noncritical traffic over to the Internet as possible, which is an order of magnitude less expensive than purchasing network bandwidth. Especially if your organization is at several locations, transferring noncritical data over the Internet from a central data center not only saves money, but a good collocation service can easily accommodate sudden surges in traffic.

2. Embrace redundancy.

No organization can anticipate every possibility, so make sure you have a good Plan B. Even Amazon goes down once in a while. Consider, for instance, how one ticket business handles this issue. New Era Tickets of Exton, Pa., hosts all of its clients’ online ticket sales, and also runs a VoIP call center for phone sales and service. With a redundant system running at its collocation center, if the worst happens New Era can be up and running again in a matter of minutes. “If my whole building goes down, my people can continue to work from home,” says IT Director Ron Friedman. “We can connect to all the same systems from the collocation.”

3. Know your priorities.

Good planning is key to maximizing the bandwidth available to you. Nobody wants to lose an important call because the network has slowed to a crawl from streaming video on users’ systems. Once you have a good picture of what kind of traffic is mission-critical (maybe VoIP, e-mail and web traffic) and what is not (perhaps streaming video or audio files), you can prioritize the packets you need most and slow down or even drop entirely the packets you don’t. “Since we’re running a call center here,” says Friedman, “the most important thing for us is getting the phone calls. Layer 3 switches give me the capability to make sure the VoIP traffic is given priority on the line.”

4. Test, test and test again.

Knowing what your site or network can handle is crucial to peace of mind. Ken Godskind, chief strategy officer of AlertSite, recommends you undergo occasional load testing alongside regular real-time monitoring. Load testing stresses your site or network to the breaking point, throwing packet after packet at it until it snaps. “Once you know that, implementing ongoing monitoring into the behavior that is critical can give you insight into the load you experience on regular days,” says Godskind.

5. Maximize your fiber.

Many organizations find that their fiber-optic capacity is no longer sufficient. But installing new fiber-optic cable is hardly cost-effective and is likely unnecessary. Installing wavelength division multiplexing (WDM) equipment will yield an 80-fold increase from your existing cable.

WDM works by using several frequencies of light to transmit data, creating up to 80 separate channels on the same fiber. Encoding and decoding equipment is set up at either end of the line, and suddenly multiple services can be sent over the same line at the same time. “Driving this kind of bandwidth even in short point-to-point transfers can allow massive amounts of data to go back and forth,” says Jim Nevelle, CEO of Sorrento Networks.

6. Buy dark fiber.

If your needs are really demanding — and especially if you expect demand to grow exponentially in coming years — start buying dark fiber. Leasing someone else’s unused fiber-optic capacity is a smart move, says Grant Kirkwood, CTO of Mzima Networks. “Controlling your own dark fiber back to a major data center means you can provision as needed, rather than be beholden to the telcos.”

The amount of bandwidth you have right now is not going to be enough in the future, so start planning. It’s fine to treat Internet service like a utility, expecting to buy more when you need more. But to do that, you’ll need the infrastructure in place, or you’ll find yourself facing costly build-outs and unforeseen bottlenecks. If you plan wisely, that won’t happen.