WLAN interference and clogged pipes -- happy holidays!

WLAN interference caused by decorations and slowed traffic due to online shopping are just some of the network woes of the holidays.

Wireless LANs have a real bah-humbug attitude, and the network as a whole has a tough time getting into the holiday

spirit.

During the holidays, there are several things that can affect network performance and potentially introduce unwanted network traffic. It's safe to say the network is a real grinch.

Deck the WLAN

WLANs seem to be the least cheerful during this season, which is supposed to be all about, well, cheer. The WLAN scoffs at Christmas trees and other hanging decorations and, in protest, may scramble its signals.

According to Wade Williamson, director of product management for AirMagnet, a WLAN monitoring and analysis vendor, the WLAN is highly susceptible to metal and glass, or any dense objects for that matter. And what's dense and metal and glass? Faux Christmas trees and other decorative fare!

"There are a lot of things that can change on a wireless LAN," Williamson said. "And when people are bringing in holiday decorations, they're not thinking 'Where's my access point?'"

A recent survey conducted by AirMagnet measured wireless signal strength in a standard office setting before and after introducing holiday decorations into the environment. In most cases, signal strength decreased by 25% when the metaphorical stockings were hung. Signal deterioration increased over distance by about a third, and signal distribution became uneven in some locations, decreasing signal strength by an additional 10%.

Williamson said deterioration of the wireless signal can leave end users with slow or dropped connections, sapping their productivity and creating many major IT headaches. Anything hanging in the air space or from the ceiling could send the wireless signal bouncing.

Craig Mathias, principal with Farpoint Group, an Ashland, Mass.-based advisory firm, said holiday decorations are a good example of network interferers, but the holidays aren't the only times companies should pay attention to what may be causing disruptions on the WLAN.

"It's not a question of banning Christmas decorations," Mathias said, adding that companies need to have tools in place to zero in on anything that could be interfering at any time of year.

Clogging the network chimney

Much like its wireless counterpart, the wired network can be somewhat of a Scrooge during the holidays. Most networking pros understand that end users are going to be using their corporate devices and the company network to do some last-minute holiday shopping, track packages and put together the all-important wish list. Most companies are also reluctant to set draconian policies barring employees from personal or recreational network use -- within reason, of course.

"Odds are statistically going up that work life and personal life are becoming increasingly intertwined," Cisco CSO John Stewart said. That convergence, he said, explains why many conduct personal business at work and most companies understand.

According to a recent Purdue University Retail Institute and Center for Customer-Driven Quality study, online sales this holiday season will jump 20% over last year, growing from $20 billion to $24 billion. In another study, the National Retail Federation said shoppers in the U.S. will buy about 35% of their holiday goods online. In addition, a study by Harris Interactive and Google Checkout found that 40% of U.S. employees will be doing some of their online holiday shopping from work this year. Of those, 57% said they plan to shop during coffee and lunch breaks, while 34% said they'll wait until the workday ends.

James Messer, technology marketing manager for Network General, said companies need to be prepared for anything a boost in online shopping can throw at them, whether it's traffic disruptions, slow running applications or increased vulnerability to security threats.

"You know something will happen, but what?" he said.

Messer said companies need to be prepared for every potential outcome, similar to planning for any other large event. Enterprises are better off if they ask "Who's the network going to hold up?" now instead of later.

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"It's not really about one individual part of the network, but about the different parts," he said. "Buying one book on Amazon touches so many pieces of the network. The biggest concern should be having critical services affected."

A good test of how the network can withstand skyrocketing shopping is to gauge what happened on "Cyber Monday," the Monday that followed Thanksgiving and has been flagged as the busiest online shopping day of the year.

"Our customers have come to the realization that they have to treat Cyber Monday like the rollout of a new application or a move, add and change," Messer said. "They have to be ready for any contingency."

An increase in Internet traffic resulting from a jump in holiday shopping may slow the network a wee bit, especially during busy work hours, but Stewart said that should be the least of an enterprise's concerns; identity theft, scams and network threats should be bigger worries.

Companies should educate users about safe shopping practices and the potential for phishing attacks and identity theft, Stewart said, adding that raising the consciousness is necessary and that the holidays are a great time to remind end users of safe behavior.

"Talk about [threats] in context," he said. "Tell others to be careful about Web sites and be conscious before sharing their information."

Stewart said that as a society we've grown increasingly dependent on the Internet, and with all of the potential threats swirling in the cloud, that may mean it's actually better if employees use corporate machines and the corporate network for holiday shopping, instead of their personal computers and home networks, which in many cases are less secure.

The corporate network and corporate computers will be less susceptible to a security breach, Stewart said, which means employees will be happier – and happy employees are productive. Identity theft, an online scam, or a virus or worm, even if it occurs on the end user's home network or computer, will affect their work life as well, he said.

"Is it in fact the case that your employees are safer on the corporate network?" Stewart asked. "I'm almost wondering if I should encourage use of the corporate computer and network. I think it may be OK, if not better, that they're using the corporate infrastructure."

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