If Michael Phelps swims his way toward medal history during the upcoming Olympic Games, employees will be able to see it as it happens, because for the first time, NBCUniversal is streaming live all 302 events and all 32 sports. That is, if it doesn't wreak havoc on corporate networks.
"When it comes to watching the Olympics, it's like watching a point-to-point conversation over the network, so if 500 people in a company are watching the same exact thing, and if one stream takes a few megabytes per second, that's pretty much consuming most of your bandwidth," said Sanjay Castelino, VP of product marketing and strategy at network management tools provider Solarwinds.
Even before the summer games began, bandwidth consumed by streaming media on corporate networks tripled from 4% in 2011 to 13%, according to a June 2012 study of over 2,000 organizations worldwide by Palo Alto Networks. This "now represents a more significant infrastructure challenge to organizations," the study said.
The increase in streaming video--without any significant events going on --obviously affects work-related applications employees might be using, not to mention operational and productivity costs. What's a network administrator to do?
San Francisco-based Bleacher Report says it's ready. The third most-visited sports media site in the country, Bleacher Report received over 50,000 requests per minute (RPM) at its peak during college basketball's March Madness season, up from its average of 60 million to 70 million visits and over 650 to 700 page views during that period.
VP of engineering Sam Parnell said they expect to see an increase in traffic of at least two to three times above the normal amount for the Olympics. As a result, Bleacher Report has already increased its infrastructure by 25% to handle the spike, Parnell said. The site is using Web performance company New Relic to monitor traffic spikes in real-time and tweak network performance in order to stay up and running efficiently. It also uses cloud-based Amazon EC2 servers, "so it's easy to add more on demand." Because the company was in its initial stages four years ago, officials haven't been able to benchmark this year's games on previous Olympics.
But the record-breaking traffic they saw during March Madness "...is now normal, day-to-day traffic for us," said Parnell. During the Olympics, he said they will be closely monitoring every aspect of the site, including response time, where bottlenecks might be occurring, and how fast pages are loading. "We can add a significant amount of service to our infrastructure in 15 to 30 minutes," he said, adding, "I hope we won't have to react like that."
Corporate networks will be in good shape if IT administrators have been proactive about "white-listing access to third-party cloud apps, like Salesforce," limiting access to certain types of streaming media content, and restricting bandwidth usage by employees, noted Jennifer McClain, senior product manager at Compuware APM, which is working with several media outlets covering the games.
Compuware's Gomez Streaming Monitoring tool lets sites "monitor the performance of streaming media and reports both on the availability of that streaming media as well as quality of service as it is experienced by end users," McClain said. Reporting metrics include startup time--how long it takes before the stream is usable--and rebuffering, so a company can understand how frequently users experience the need to preload any streaming media. "Those are two metrics from an end user point of view that play heavily into the overall quality of the user experience."
For Castelino, it boils down to two words: prioritize traffic. "If you don't do traffic prioritization and don't monitor how your network capacity is being used you will almost certainly run into issues." That goes for remote offices, too.
Even if IT tries blocking NBC's site and other media outlets, chances are employees will find other places to stream content during the games. "So it ends up as a game of cat and mouse where you're trying to block more things that consume bandwidth," Castelino said, "so most network guys will stay away from that and set up priorities instead. "It's easier to keep giving employees access to the Web, but give that access on a best-efforts basis, which says, 'I'm going to give priority to all the key applications for the business, and whatever's left over you can use.'"
It's not just corporate IT that needs to think about traffic and bandwidth issues. Off the corporate network, performance is also based on the reliability of local ISPs as well as mobile carriers, McClain noted. And the media sites themselves that are providing the streaming media "need to offer enough of a variety of bit rates for the Olympic streams so users with lower download streams can actually access the streams," she said. "A lower bit rate might sacrifice the overall quality but it significantly reduces the amount of rebuffering individual users' experience."
During the Superbowl, for example, McClain said the reviews for NBC, in particular, "were not so great." NBC is now partnering with CDN provider Akamai to provide a better experience in multiple locations.
Parnell's focus has already moved beyond the Olympics. "Looking at the next six months we're into NFL preseason, then the regular season and then the NBA. I'll get to breathe again in February, just in time for March Madness."