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Remote teleworkers complicate WAN bandwidth allocation

Part-time teleworkers, and a myriad of networked applications, mean that the calculations for predicting bandwidth consumption are more complicated than ever.

When properly managed, more road warriors and telecommuters can mean lower bandwidth consumption and, ultimately, savings for many enterprises. Even when savings are not possible, however, current business drivers are leading to more workers sitting outside the corporate network, and managing their bandwidth consumption is a key consideration.

"Given this environment, you might think that the remote or mobile worker would get the lowest priority," said Cindy Borovick, an analyst with IDC. "But despite the economy, this is a key trend enterprises want to support."

Borovick recently completed a survey on enterprise priorities, and she said she was surprised by the priority given to support for remote and mobile workers.

This prioritization of the remote worker is a mixed blessing for network administrators who are charged with maintaining the wide-area network (WAN).

Much of the traffic that these users generate is now pushed off to other connections, such as a residential broadband or Wi-Fi hotspots. Such a move can cut bandwidth costs: That Internet radio or YouTube video is now traversing the worker's home connection instead of traveling over the corporate network.

For those secure applications that do still need to be routed through the corporate WAN -- via a VPN, for example -- there can still be substantial savings, particularly as enterprises continue to push data centers out of the office and into remote, more cost-efficient locations, where the electricity, cooling and bandwidth needs can be met at a lower cost.

"Most employees today don't sit in the same building as the critical enterprise application," said Dave Asprey, vice president of technology and corporate development at Blue Coat. He said this trend has only really taken off over the past few years.

With the rising popularity of cloud computing and Software as a Service (SaaS), the trend of data centers well removed from employee hubs is likely to accelerate, he said.

The move has also made supporting remote workers more palatable, even as workers clamor to become part-time telecommuters for their own reasons.

Forrester Research has projected that about a quarter of employees will be part-time telecommuters in the next couple of years. This trend means that the calculations for supporting so many remote employees can get quite complicated, and getting those calculations right becomes more important to keeping a business running.

Asprey said that the arithmetic starts simply enough: If X percent of your workers telecommute, you save X percent on your bandwidth cost.

But that does not account for the traffic that must be routed over enterprise networks regardless of where the workers are located, including email, many hosted customer relationship management (CRM) applications, and other Web-driven business applications.

And though the overall cost of supporting a teleworker might be lower than the cost for an on-site employee, the networking spend might actually be more, owing to high home broadband fees.

"If you think about the LAN connection in the office versus a WAN connection, you're still talking $70 a month for someone at home, compared to a price per port on a LAN switch, which is $70 over four years," Borovick said.

And the enterprise still has to be prepared for "peak usage," so that even if a number of employees are in the office only two days a week, the network must be ready to support those two days without brownouts or slowdowns.

The best way to begin that calculation, Asprey suggested, is to get a good grip on which applications are being utilized by all users. For some enterprises, most remote user traffic might simply be email; for others, all traffic, including YouTube videos and social networking, might be filtered back through the network.

Knowing which applications are in use, and how often, can help network administrators break out the calculations between on-site and off-site employees and better prepare the network for the busiest days in, and out of, the office.

Have feedback on this article? E-mail article author Michael Morisy.

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