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Devising WAN traffic management strategy for rise of enterprise video

Rapid growth of enterprise video is threatening to squeeze critical business applications. IT pros must prepare WAN traffic management strategies to protect these apps.

The possibility of recreational YouTube and corporate video traffic flooding and crashing woefully unprepared wide area networks (WANs) overnight may be far-fetched. But recreational and enterprise video use is growing, and  IT pros must prepare WAN traffic management strategies to keep video from crowding out critical business applications. 

"It's going to have a meaningful impact," said W. Kelly Reed, network engineer for a U.S.-based freight rail operator. "We're going to have to plan around it, but I don't think it's going to be as big as some … vendors want to make it out to be."

About half of businesses recently surveyed expect enterprise video to "change the way the company does business," according to Lucinda Borovick, research vice president at IDC. That means business applications which are already competing with recreational video traffic on the WAN will face even more competition from enterprise video training, video conferencing and corporate videos streamed from consumer websites, she said.

"The successful deployment of IP-based video in the corporate environment requires that it works across the entire global corporate network," Borovick said. "The WAN links present an even greater challenge because of their more limited bandwidth and [additional] expense."

Although there is no single metric networking pros can use to assess when recreational and enterprise video traffic will force them to intervene on behalf of business applications, they will hear about the problem from users soon enough, according to Andre Kindness, senior analyst at Forrester Research.

" The amount of helpdesk calls really dictates where the CIO puts the money," Kindness said. "Say [video] takes up 90% [of bandwidth], but whatever your application is on the other side may not require that much."

Appliances, engineering help WAN traffic management for enterprise video

Although WAN optimization appliances cannot accelerate enterprise video traffic through traditional methods, vendors are improving the way on-demand and live video is accessed at branch offices.

Some appliances can cache content at branch offices so that any video requests after the first are streamed from the local WAN optimization box. Vendors such as Riverbed Technology and Blue Coat Systems can also schedule pushes of cached video content so that a video message from the CEO could be sent to the branch appliance the night before it goes live to employees.

Blue Coat also claims it can improve streaming video with a "stream-splitting" feature on its ProxySG appliance, which now supports Adobe Flash video streams in addition to existing support for Windows Media files and HTTP-based videos from sites such as YouTube. The feature enables the appliance to download a streaming video only once; subsequent requests for the same stream branch off from the original and essentially become distributed copies for other clients, according to Mark Urban, senior director of product marketing at Blue Coat.

Networking pros who are unable to get their CIO or CFO to commit to spending thousands of dollars on such appliances for WAN traffic management can try to restrict recreational video traffic on firewalls and other security appliances, Kindness said.

Dealing with the rise in enterprise video traffic

Reed, who oversees a WAN spanning 270 locations, does not feel his network has been overwhelmed by enterprise video traffic, but its growth has forced him to contend with it.

Up until now, we've kind of shunned away [from] and frowned upon delivering video across the WAN just because of the bandwidth that it uses.

W. Kelly Reed, network engineer

"Up until now, we've kind of shunned away [from] and frowned upon delivering video across the WAN just because of the bandwidth that it uses," he said.

Executives at Reed's firm now produce weekly, on-demand video webcasts to foster a more inclusive environment for employees in remote locations. Users have complained about "getting horrible results with choppiness," Reed said.

As a result, he is evaluating local video cache servers that can run as virtual appliances on his Riverbed Steelhead WAN optimization devices, which Reed originally purchased to accelerate business applications.

Corporate offices can access YouTube, but remote locations with maybe a few users and a T1 connection have limited, if any, Internet connection.

Reed also recently deployed a Tandberg video conferencing system, which he decided to operate over dedicated WAN links between corporate offices. But executives are exploring the possible distribution of cameras in remote locations to save on travel expenses, which Reed is unsure how he'll handle from a WAN traffic management perspective. 

"The best thing to do to safeguard your network is to have good [quality of service] QoS, either in the cloud if you have an MPLS network or have really strict QoS policy on the router," he said. "It's one of those things you have to be guarded against, but if you're prepared for it, you're going to be fine."

Not all expect WAN traffic management problems from enterprise video

Despite the hype, not every IT pro sees video as a major threat to WAN traffic management. Mike Shisko, director of IT for Hitachi Consulting, the Dallas-based consulting arm of Japanese tech conglomerate Hitachi Ltd., pushed hard to get budgeting for a WAN optimization controller when the CEO announced he wanted to start a video blog.

"The video blog was really the first streaming video traffic that we knew was going to hit the network," Shisko said. "Our biggest concern was that it was going to be concentrated -- that if there's [an alert] for a new video blog … all 1,200 employees go and look at it at the same time."

The appliance did its job, caching video content at 21 branch offices so that every request after the first would stream from the local box. Bandwidth utilization from video traffic plummeted by 90% when the blog launched in late 2008, Shisko said.

Over time, the CEO updated the video blog less frequently and users lost interest, making the video-caching less of a priority. He also learned that the Blue Coat appliance improves some live streams better than others -- "WMV was the best. AVI was OK. With FLV, we saw almost [no improvement]," he said -- but generally benefits videos routed from Internet traffic backhauled from branch offices to data center firewalls.

As a result, Shisko relies on the Blue Coat appliance more for application acceleration, the reason for which he originally wanted the device but had been unable to get budget support.

Shisko has stopped worrying about and monitoring video traffic. He prioritizes standard-definition video conferencing on his MPLS links and leaves the Blue Coat appliance in place for video-based training, but his WAN traffic management plan for video ends there for now. Recreational video doesn't seem to be interfering with either, he said.  

"I don't think video as a classic application is taking off and overwhelming our network at this point," Shisko said. "WAN optimization is great stuff, but I'm a proponent of it more because it's kind of cool than it is truly saving our bacon."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, News Writer.

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