The complaints were rolling in -- "This application is so slow" or "This file is taking forever to download" -- and IT manager Sean Barnes couldn't definitively tell his supervisor why the network at his company's headquarters was dragging. But he knew a better approach to network user management with insight into what streaming Internet video and radio were doing to the network might offer some answers.
"We knew that we were experiencing issues, but we weren't really sure how to monitor it," said Barnes, manager of IT infrastructure and support at Forum Oilfield Technologies, an oil drilling supply manufacturer based in Houston. "We didn't really know for sure that we were really hitting the [bandwidth] ceiling."
"Our breaking point was, more or less, when the bandwidth started to affect our production environment," said Eric Fossler, network analyst at Forum. "The network was not running the way it should."
Users had been streaming music throughout the day from websites such as Sirius and XM Radio, Fossler said, in addition to video from YouTube and other bandwidth-heavy sites such as Facebook. Meanwhile, employees working in core applications -- delivered via a virtual desktop -- would be waiting five to 10 seconds for menus to drop down or keystrokes to appear on the screen.
After Barnes deployed a secure Web gateway appliance and began blocking streaming media websites, the Texas enterprise saw its bandwidth usage cut by more than half.
Before Forum could develop user policies for about 515 employees, the networking team tapped Salt Lake City-based startup Cymphonix to use its Web gateway appliance, Network Composer, on 140 users at the manufacturer's San Antonio plant. The first deployment was followed by a larger one the next month at one of Forum's Houston locations.
The Cymphonix box, which sits at the gateway level, offers a granular look into Web traffic on the network, syncing with a company directory to report which websites an individual user has visited, how much bandwidth any user has consumed at each site, and which sites triggered a malware or spyware attack, said Dave Reardon, Cymphonix's vice president of sales.
Network administrators need that level of detail to make network user management decisions, Reardon said. Each department may have different demands, making a one-dimensional "block and allow" approach to setting user policies outdated, he added.
"In order for you to appropriately make some adjustments about the type of traffic going across your network … you need to see it and see it in a way that makes sense to you," he said. "Maybe the marketing department has perfectly good reasons why they want to use YouTube … but there might be an engineer in the back who's streaming Pandora radio all day."
Cymphonix software also enables network user management at an equally customized level, allowing an administrator to determine user policies based on individual user, time of day, bandwidth available and type of content on a particular website, Reardon said.
"You may want to say for YouTube, for instance, 'I don't want to block YouTube, but I want to limit the amount of bandwidth YouTube can get at any time of day,'" he said. "Or you're not going to block iGoogle, but you may want to block a streaming media that's within iGoogle."
Before the networking pros at Forum Oilfield Technologies used their Cymphonix boxes to develop network user management guidelines, they just watched. For a week, they saw exactly what Web traffic was gobbling up their 1.5 Mbps connections.
"We didn't block anything. We were just monitoring and saw our T1 was steadily maxed out," Barnes said. "Consistently, between 1.3 and 1.5 megs was being utilized. Once I started blocking sites and stopping users from streaming audio and video, [bandwidth usage] got down to .4 or .5 on average, so I was able to cut out a tremendous amount of unnecessary or non-work-related applications."
Since buying the gateway solution, Forum Oilfield has not experimented with creating dynamic user policies as part of a greater network user management strategy, such as allowing streaming media sites during lunch hours or giving special privileges to executives.
"Honestly, we have not had time to do much as far as implementing policies in the Cymphonix boxes. At this time, we are … just blocking sites," Barnes said. "Eventually, we hope to use more of the features."
Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, News Writer