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Social media traffic requires new WAN architecture

Social media traffic continues to eat WAN bandwidth, as a report by Palo Alto Networks reveals.

Social media traffic has infiltrated the corporate environment, with many enterprises embracing social media platforms for improved internal communication and collaboration. This media-intensive trend has resulted in increased and unpredictable traffic on the wide area network (WAN), prompting the need for network managers to step up their social media policies and take a closer look at their WAN architecture.

Facebook applications, social-plugins and updates are eating up WAN bandwidth, according to firewall vendor Palo Alto Networks, which released its eighth Application Usage and Risk Report earlier this month. The report -- which summarized the network traffic assessments of 1,636 organizations worldwide -- examined social media traffic and usage patterns in the workplace since Oct. 2010. Palo Alto found that Facebook traffic had gone from consuming 5% of overall bandwidth to 25% in a 14-month period, and noted that Twitter usage on enterprise networks has grown by 700% year-over-year.

Social media traffic not going away

Social media is becoming an important business tool. Companies are more distributed, with more branch offices and more remote workers, said Andre Kindness, senior analyst at Forrester Research. These employees may be geographically isolated from their colleagues, and social media use can allow them to communicate more effectively.

Empowering the employee with tools to help get work done should be the priority, and IT infrastructure operation teams should be less concerned with social networking use and more focused on social media monitoring of other platforms that add new workloads to the WAN, including Skype and other peer-to-peer video technology, said Kindness.

Adjust your WAN architecture for social media traffic

Collaboration via social media comes along with increased file-sharing, media downloads and video usage that can stress WANs based on a traditional hub-and-spoke design, said Zeus Kerravala, founder and principal analyst at ZK Research.  Social media use on the WAN demands a more peer-to-peer traffic pattern, resulting in random and less orderly traffic flows. The legacy hub-and-spoke WAN cannot cope with the type of traffic flows social media imposes.

If network managers are going to support social media traffic on their networks, they must consider a fully meshed network, Kerravala said. “I think anyone designing a network now should think about provisioning direct Internet access right to the branch using some sort of split tunnel,” he said, noting that many social media applications work best with direct Internet access. “The whole architecture of a network that runs a lot of social media needs to change.”

In addition to re-architecting the network, network managers must address the volume of traffic social media use puts on the WAN.

Because social media traffic tends to be media-intensive, video is frequently used and pictures are constantly being uploaded. Unlike the traditional model of the IT department creating data and distributing it over the WAN, any user can create content, said Kerravala. “Now that users can create information, including video, files and pictures, there is a lot more traffic from every location, being sent to every location,” he said. 

“The whole architecture of a network that runs a lot of social media needs to change.”

Zeus Kerravala, Principal Analyst at ZK Research

Social media traffic highlights security gaps               

As social networking and media usage increases, network managers are starting to notice that the type of traffic on enterprise networks is also changing. Web applications using TCP Port 80, which are usually protected by firewalls, now represent less than half (49%) of Web traffic on enterprise networks for the first time, according to Palo Alto Networks. Encrypted traffic on Port 443 accounts for the majority of Web application traffic now, and most security products cannot inspect this traffic.

Matt Keil, senior research analyst at Palo Alto Networks said that encrypted traffic is exceedingly risky for enterprises. “If organizations continue to focus on Port 80 security, they will be missing many security risks and will not be protecting the network.”

Understanding what programs are running over the WAN will help network managers put in place the right optimization tools and filter out the bad traffic, said ZK Research’s Kerravala. Knowing where the top applications are coming from and where they are going to is critical, he said. “If [network managers] have a good understanding of what’s running over the network and what’s important to the business, they will be able to make decisions of how to prioritize traffic over the WAN.”


Know the traffic on your network

The Palo Alto report revealed that 92% of respondents have file-sharing sites in use on their network, with an average of 13 in use within each organization. This is where knowing the network comes in, said ZK Research’s Kerravala. “At least from a baseline perspective, managers can help the user understand what the network looks like, rather than the users grabbing tools from anywhere and using them at their discretion.”  

But in order to train employees, network managers themselves must understand what normal operations look like on the WAN so that any deviations can be detected, he said.

Kerravala believes that understanding the network is step one. “Rather than imposing controls over the users blindly, [network managers] need to understand what they are controlling, and then put the right controls in place.”

And the right controls boil down to data security, said Forrester’s Kindness. “IT trying to control everything just won’t fly, and people will find ways to work around it,” he said. Encouraging employees to leverage the right tools for work, sharing files in a responsible manner and setting standards for employees to work within is the direction network managers should be moving in for WAN security, said Kindness.

Social networking and video traffic has changed the corporate network tremendously in recent years and it’s only growing, said ZK Research’s Kerravala. “If [network managers] do not have a good handle on the traffic now, they are really going to struggle to manage the WAN in the future.”

Social media is just the tip of the iceberg, added Forrester’s Kindness. “Network managers need to prepare the WAN for people using outside resources to get their jobs done.”

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Gina Narcisi, News Writer


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