Large files moved by peer-to-peer file-sharing services can slow a network to a crawl. At Oklahoma State University,
the IT department found a fix that lets students swap files and still keeps the network moving.
David Laws, a network specialist at the Stillwater-based university, said that streaming traffic from peer-to-peer file-sharing sites like Kazaa.com, Morpheus.com and others takes up a lot of bandwidth. The traffic is also more aggressive, he said. It can choke out Web browsing and e-mail.
Laws said that until the file-sharing fix was deployed, he frequently received complaints about network speed from the university's student body of 29,000.
"I'm not saying that peer-to-peer file sharing is bad," Laws said. There are many legitimate uses for this kind of file sharing, he said, but "I need to make sure all students have equal access to resources." Those few students who are frequent users of file-sharing services were the real problem because they were taking up much more bandwidth than the average user, he said.
Laws said there is also some concern that the university may be liable for providing students the infrastructure over which students are illegally downloading music and movies. While no one has sued the university over this, he said it remains a very real concern and increases the importance of keeping tabs on student use of such popular services.
Laws has been using a product called NetworkVantage from Compuware Corp., the Farmington Hills, Mich., software development company. The software allows network professionals to monitor the movement of thousands of applications across the network. A new feature of this product is the ability to identify instant messaging (IM) traffic as well as peer-to-peer traffic.
Lloyd Bloom, product manager for Compuware's NetworkVantage, said that the company saw an increase in the use of instant messaging and file sharing in businesses, yet no network management software was tracking such traffic. Adding instant messaging and peer-to-peer traffic monitoring into the mix was a necessary step, he said.
Compuware's product is the first to provide monitoring specifically for these applications out of the box, said Paul Bugala, a senior analyst with the Framingham, Mass., research firm International Data Corp. Other products on the market need to be modified to track IM and peer-to-peer traffic, Bugala said.
Dennis Drogseth, vice president of the Boulder, Colo., research and consulting firm Enterprise Management Associates Inc., said that network administrators should be paying attention to both IM and peer-to-peer traffic on their networks. Though IM traffic is not made up of large files, it is high-frequency traffic. IM traffic is less predictable than that of more mature applications and its unpredictability can stress the infrastructure, he said.
Peer-to-peer traffic is equally, if not more, troublesome, Drogseth said. The traffic can be unpredictable and the files vary dramatically in size depending on the kind of information being accessed. Being able to monitor this traffic and understanding its impact on the network is valuable, he said.
Oklahoma State's Laws agrees.
With a better sense of who is doing what on the network, Laws was able to allow peer-to-peer file sharing while avoiding the kinds of slowdowns that were plaguing his network. Laws has also been able to identify those students who use services like Kazaa the most. He has segregated their traffic so it does not interfere with others' use of the network, and he moves these high-bandwidth users into their own 5 megabit queue. That way, their use of Kazaa does not affect other users' network performance. When they hog bandwidth, they only slow one another down.
So far, he said, complaints about network performance are down, and so are the bottlenecks.