Olympics Games hold no torch for network speed

The increase in streaming video from major sporting events is causing havoc with network speed.

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Here is one sure way to leverage Facebook as a business tool: You put a fantasy football app up there and business folks will be driven to it faster than mosquitoes to swamp water.

If you haven't heard by now, Sports Illustrated, in partnership with Citizen Sports Inc., has created and is promoting a fantasy football application on Facebook. The move is an attempt by media giant Time Inc., a division of Time Warner Inc., which owns Sports Illustrated, to take content to where sports fans already are. And with nearly 4.5 million Facebook users, you can bet there are plenty of sports fans.

But this move has less to do with the phenomenon of Facebook than it does with the fact that sporting events are driving consumer behavior and expectations for network speed in the workplace. Fantasy football on Facebook isn't the first sports issue CIOs have to deal with, and it sure as heck won't be the last. (According to Nielsen Online, 11.7 million fans played fantasy football last year, 16% more than played in 2006.)

There are, in fact, other major sporting events that spike Internet traffic: The NCAA men's basketball tournament (aka March Madness) and World Cup Soccer, for instance.

But for the next two weeks, it's the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. And if you haven't planned for it, all I can say is good luck.

With a little help from Microsoft, NBC will provide unprecedented online coverage of the Olympics -- more than 3,000 hours of on-demand video and more than 2,200 hours of live footage from China. In comparison, during the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, NBC streamed just two hours of live footage. And to enhance the viewer experience (and to make you even more edgy this week), users will be able to watch multiple video streams choosing from up to 20 concurrent streams from 25 Olympic sports.

Can we say bandwidth problem?

According to Grant Murphy, director of Web gateway sales at Secure Computing Corp., a San Jose, Calif.-based firm specializing in security software, the bandwidth issue will only escalate as more media outlets offer streaming video as part of their sports coverage. He figures (actually figured this on the back of an envelop while we were chatting) that in a company of 10,000 employees, if 75 of them (on a 100-megabit network) were streaming video at one time (assuming that each user is using a decent-quality video stream and there are other Internet applications sharing the pipe), it could slow the network down to the point where no one else could access the Internet.

Video remains unique from a productivity point of view, Murphy says. Unlike other online productivity busters, such as online shopping, downloading video affects everyone in the network. "Your productivity waste of time is also someone else's because it consumes network resources."

But for the next two weeks, it's the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. And, if you haven't planned for it, all I can say is good luck.

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What can you do?

Of course, the draconian way to handle it is to just block it, Murphy says. But he adds, "that's a recipe for mutiny." There are simple techniques like bringing in a radio or television and letting employees watch on break time (perhaps if there was beer involved this might work, I thought). Of course, this doesn't solve the productivity problem, but it does cut down on bandwidth issues. Or else you could set up policies: Users can download video from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. and from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m.

You could give in and upgrade to a faster network. Bandwidth demand is always increasing, Murphy says, and eventually, it will be consumed. But is it worth it just to make for a "positive employee experience?" (Oh, I can see the grimace on your face now.)

So, let's review. You have four options:

You can increase the network speed.

You can block access.

You can limit access through policy.

Or, you can suck it up and accept the fact that for the next two weeks, it'll be nearly impossible to access critical business applications.

As the games begin, I will be paying close attention to my network speed and thinking about how my own IT department is dealing with the network speed issue. If it's slow, I'll blame it on the guy sitting next to me, rather than the guys in IT (they love me over there). But your company's employees might not be so generous if your network is as sluggish as Beijing air -- even when we start bringing home the gold. Are you worried? Prepared? Breaking out the face masks?

Keep me posted.

Let us know what you think about the story; email: editor@searchcio-midmarket.com

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