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March (Network) Madness: an IT Manager’s Nightmare…or Slam Dunk?

In the U.S., the “March Madness” NCAA college basketball tournament is one of the most highly viewed online sporting events of the year, with 52 million visits across March Madness on Demand’s broadband and mobile platforms last year.  Even for casual viewers or non-fans who typically don’t pay attention to college basketball the rest of the season, March is the time of year when the eyes of the U.S. sporting world are fixed on the 64 team tournament. Will the Indiana Hoosiers win (as President Obama predicts) or will the Kentucky Wildcats go for their 9th National Championship win?

According to a study conducted by global outplacement firm, Challenger, Gray & Christmas, it is estimated that nearly one-third of all U.S. employees spend three hours or more watching March Madness hoops during the workday – you might even be one of them. Complete your brackets in time? Did you bet a few bucks toward the office pool? Ready to root for your favorite underdog team? Or trash talk with your friends on Facebook, Google+ and Twitter?

The only problem is, your IT department might not be ready to handle the increased traffic. Welcome to March (Network) Madness.

With 32 games taking place over a 36-hour period, the first two days of the NCAA tournament are the busiest. And with all but eight games starting before 5:00 p.m. Pacific time, expect quite a few office workers streaming games through the corporate network. Regardless of the size of your company, this can be taxing on the network.

According to Brian Christiansen, head of Cisco’s IT networking services team, on a typical day, Cisco sees 35% of network traffic as video and 25% of traffic as outbound to the Internet. However, during the first two days of March Madness, that number is expected to spike exponentially by as much at five times, as employees will be watching games, checking brackets and sharing commentary on social sites.

This continues an upward trend in the growth of video on the network. According to the Cisco Visual Networking Index, or VNI Study, by 2017, mobile video will represent 66 percent of all mobile traffic, and global mobile traffic will reach 11.2 exabytes per month.

Kip Compton, Cisco CTO of video and collaboration, was interviewed by Dan Simon of CNN and equated this problem to the roads during a traffic jam following a sporting event. “The road is built to carry a certain number of cars, but (because of March Madness video streaming) there may be more cars than the roads are designed to handle.” Compton goes on to describe how work is likely to be disrupted by people watching video of March Madness, causing network slowdowns, but “at Cisco, we allow people to do these things, and they’re accountable for their productivity, but we allow them to access these types of content.”

This CNN interview can be viewed (yes, via streaming video) here.

Also in the news, Brian Christiansen was interviewed by Sean Michael Kerner of Internetnews.com.  In this article, Christiansen addresses the cultural impact of Milennials and the expectations they have when it comes to use of technology and mobile devices in the workplace. “We have a competitive environment for talent in Silicon Valley and we need to support the millennials,” Christensen said. “I view it as critical that we allow the flexibility for people to watch and work…The new generation workforce is not watching things on TV anymore, they are watching streaming video on tablets and other devices. You should expect that will continue to grow.” Kerner continues, “Aside for the workday related impact that March Madness has, there is also the physical impact on the network. Christensen expects that March Madness will increase his network bandwidth demand by as much as 3x over a typical workday.”

Sean Michael Kerner’s interview of Christiansen, “Is Your Network Ready for March Madness?” can be read here.

It’s no secret that IT departments are already feeling the strain on their networks caused by the influx of employee devices, used to access both work applications and entertainment such as the NCAA tournament. Network management from an IT perspective becomes increasingly important, and proactive education and messaging around large consumer trends is key to avoiding problems. Cisco’s Sheila Jordan recently offered a few tips on how to address this device deluge from a network management in the face of the BYOD trend.

When you take into account the expectations of Millennial employees, who expect to have access to HD video streaming (as reported by the 2013 Cisco Connected World Technology Report), you have even greater network complexity due to HD video that wasn’t there a few years ago. Fortunately, according to Christiansen, workers can still be effective if employers create the right policies and environment and give employees the tools they need in order to work productively, even with “distractions.”

Fortunately there are new technologies – embedded at the network level – that can add inherent intelligence to address traffic spikes without the network going down, here are a few recommendations:

1)      Insure you have visibility to your network traffic to set appropriate policies to optimize your environment. Leverage Cisco technologies such as Cisco Application Visibility and Control (AVC) and Cisco Prime Infrastructure to know what applications are using your bandwidth and set policies that are appropriate to your organization.

2)      Protect your users from Internet-based security threats that can be as simple as clicking a URL on a social media site or an advertisement that re-directs users to another site that can hold malware. Ensure you use web security solutions, including either on-premise with Cisco Web Security Appliance and in the cloud with Cisco Cloud Web Security.

3)      Distribute your enterprise Internet Points of Presence (iPoPs) closer to your end users to optimize their Internet experience. As you distribute your iPoPs, use Cisco solutions as part of our Cloud Connected Solutions to easily provide local direct access to the Internet with ability to add security and application optimization solutions.

4)      Leverage burstable circuits for your Internet access, in that way you can insure your Network operators can enjoy March Madness and not March “Network” Madness.

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