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Could March Madness cripple the network?

CBS Sports this week will offer all games of the 2006 NCAA basketball tournament online as streaming video. But if end-users tune in, the network could drop out.

For the first time, CBS Sports and the NCAA have teamed up to offer free online broadcasts of the NCAA basketball tournament, commonly known as March Madness.

But the hours of streaming video from dozens of games, which tip-off on Thursday, could cripple the network, effectively turning March Madness into March Mayhem.

"It's very difficult to predict the effect on the network," said Mike Gallagher, senior vice president of product development for Secure Computing, a San Jose, Calif. vendor specializing in Web content filters and blockers. "But streaming media is about the most expensive traffic and uses the most bandwidth."

Gallagher predicts that if a handful of users at a small- to mid-sized business tune in to ride the road to the Final Four, the elite semifinals of the tournament, the over extension of bandwidth could easily slow necessary business applications to a crawl, essentially stalling out the network.

Take, for example, a regional bank branch in Connecticut with about 15 employees. Odds are, at least half are fanatical UConn Huskies fans, based on the Huskies' past successes and the state's lack of any major professional sports teams. If half tune in to watch, chances are no other traffic will be able to make its way into the network.

Think for a second of what five to 10 basketball addicts watching this at a remote site will do to your T1 or T3 connection.
Bruce Kelley Jr.
To battle bandwidth hogs and stomp out unnecessary Web traffic, Secure Computing offers two products designed specifically to keep Web content work related. The SmartFilter and Webwasher help companies manage Internet usage policies and reduce legal liabilities by allowing them to customize categories such as gambling and sports using SmartFilter's content database that breaks nearly 7 million Web sites into 73 distinct categories. Webwasher allows administrators to filter content based on URL, user, group, policy and time of day.

"Administrators can monitor traffic patterns to see if there is a spike in any certain type of traffic," Gallagher said.

Because this is the first year the three-week tournament is being offered as streaming Web content, Gallagher said the impact is still an unknown, but the effect could depend on the type of pipe a company has. Leased lines can see a jump in costs, and T1 and T3 lines, which have fixed amounts of bandwidth, could see a massive reduction in response time.

"Streaming media can be a very, very expensive thing for a network," he said. "And you can start taxing your network pretty easily with it."

At Collins Electrical in Stockton, Calif., the IT staff snuffed out the potential of March Madness madness by restricting non-work-related Web content using Secure Computing's SmartFilter. Jessica Geronimo, the company's IT director, said that decision is a no-brainer, considering Collins Electrical has one point of entry for the Internet connecting five branches and a host of remote workers.

"Generally, we block everything that's non-business related," she said. "We monitor all the traffic we have to see what's necessary and unnecessary. It's very important to us that bandwidth is used productively and efficiently."

Collins Electrical is in University of the Pacific Tigers territory, which is slated to square off against the Boston College Eagles in the first round of the tournament. If some of Collins Electrical's 200 end users were to watch the game, the effect on the network could be catastrophic.

"A lot of data is transferred over that pipe," Geronimo said. "And more and more of our applications are Web-based. We do mainly everything over the Internet. Streaming video would slow down those applications. We're very tight here, very strict on [Internet] usage."

Eileen Haggerty, director of solutions marketing for NetScout, a vendor of network performance monitoring tools in its nGenius suite, said since CBS is offering the ability to watch up to three games at once, the problem could increase further. Slow response time is the first symptom, but the situation could worsen once more users start tuning in.

"There's all kinds of potential to make a demonstrable change of traffic going over the network," she said, noting most problems will arise in areas with famed NCAA squads, like in Indiana's Hoosier territory, or the parts of North Carolina where the Duke Blue Devils and the UNC Tarheels dominate.

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In a recent Weblog entry, NetScout's CTO Bruce Kelley Jr. wrote of the impact he foresees March Madness having on corporate networks. He painted a picture of applications fighting for bandwidth against the games.

"Think for a second of what five to 10 basketball addicts watching this at a remote site will do to your T1 or T3 connection," he wrote. "Maybe nothing if you're only sending e-mail from the site, but chances are, your network is running important finance, CRM or customized business apps that probably won't like competing for bandwidth with the opening round games …"

Kelley continued: "Consider the impact [on] VoIP performance of 100 users streaming video on a major corporate LAN near North Carolina, BC or UCLA."

While Haggerty admits it may be "a little late now" for companies to add new products to their network to control users tuning in, she said a company-wide e-mail could serve as a reminder of usage policies. Companies could also set the firewall to screen out traffic types or pop on tools that track Web use and sound an alarm when certain URLs have activity. Monitoring traffic patterns during the tournament could also provide the evidence needed for a future purchase.

"It could be one person watching at a branch bank location that makes an impact [on the network] and as few as a half-dozen to bring it down," she said. "It's going to be interesting to see what happens."

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