For many, Tuesday's annual gadget lover's festival known as iPhone Announcement Day is the grown-up equivalent of a kid finding an unwrapped Christmas present in the hall closet -- a sneak peek at the shiny new toy that will be under the tree in a couple of weeks.
Unfortunately for network managers, the unveiling occurs during business hours – 10 a.m. Pacific time, in case you want to set an alarm on your soon-to-be-passe smartphone. And, if past Apple product announcements are any indication, it'll be live blogged by dozens of tech and mainstream news sites, with breathless posts on every minute detail devoured by millions of eager customers.
This means many employees will find any excuse to huddle in their cubes, putatively working on an important spreadsheet, or slink off to a corner during a meeting, pretending to be on a phone call, all the while vicariously following the festivities ... and soaking up precious WAN bandwidth at up to 2 Mbps per stream for all the "unboxing" ceremonies and live video reporting.
But the fun doesn't stop there. Once iPhone Delivery Day comes (likely a week or two later), enterprise networks could take another hit as employees proudly haul their new toys to work and promptly blow off everything on their to-do lists to synchronize and update their apps. Meanwhile, those who couldn't splurge for the new model aren't left out of the party, since they'll be updating to the glorious new iOS 5 release, complete with iCloud support. As if the 500-MB to 700-MB firmware download isn't bad enough, wait until the whole marketing staff starts synchronizing their iTunes libraries to iCloud.
It's enough to bring a collaboration environment to its knees.
Such is the nightmare scenario painted by Mark Urban, Blue Coat's senior director of WAN optimization product marketing. Of course, a leading supplier of WAN-optimization hardware does have a vested interest in stoking fears of network apocalypse, but in today's world of live streaming and downloadable software, it's not like such incidents are unprecedented. Urban says customers reported significant traffic bursts after Michael Jackson's death and during the Chilean miner rescue.
In this case, a saving grace for besieged IT managers is that Apple's recent history indicates that the actual product release will be on a weekend, typically Friday or Saturday, such that early adopters will get their network-blasting jollies done on their own (or the App Store's) dime. Urban's counterpoint -- that employees will wait out the weekend to sponge off the enterprise network out of fear of blowing their home broadband bandwidth cap -- seems unlikely.
First, who is going to wait in line for hours on a Friday afternoon to get their hands on the gadget of the year and then, in the calm light of reason, think, "You know, if I configure this thing now, I could get my bandwidth throttled for the rest of the month; I better wait until Monday"? Second, most broadband caps (and remember, these aren't universal) are set to prevent 24/7 BitTorrent downloads,and thus are in the 100-plus-GB-per-month range. Downloading a new OS and some apps will hardly make a dent. Furthermore, even though iCloud will store copies of your music, that doesn't mean your music gets copied to the cloud, since the iTunes Match service won't actually upload any songs in a user's library that are already available on the iTunes store ).
IT pros can take further consolation by realizing that the iPhone announcement is a predictable disaster, unlike the slow-motion train wreck that was Michael Jackson's last days. Thus, IT managers concerned that iPhone-blog ogling and iOS upgrading might disrupt critical business transactions and collaboration environments still have time to send a pre-emptive memo reminding employees of IT policies and corporate standards of conduct, and the consequences of their violation. While not a perfect remedy, it could make the difference between network meltdown and slowdown.
Mitigating circumstances aside, there's little doubt that high-profile, media-hyped and data-heavy events like the iPhone's unveiling and subsequent release can have deleterious affects on enterprise networks that aren't either (a) so locked down as to risk employee revolt or (b) equipped with bandwidth management and optimization technology such as that from Blue Coat and its competitors [PDF] at Cisco, Riverbed, and Silver Peak.
The former is an untenable strategy in our Web 2.0 era where employees consider unfettered Facebook and YouTube access an inalienable right of greater import than free parking or an on-site gym. Network control and optimization holds more promise, however. According to Urban, the way in which Blue Coat's appliances monitor and cache content means that if 10 people download an iOS update, "the first time is stored in the cache and the next nine are free." The same goes for video streams, where the appliance fetches a single 1 Mbps stream for the entire office, meaning it can be redistributed to hundreds of users. In addition, optimization appliances can prioritize, shape, and cap network traffic, and, says Urban, can even identify particular subtypes of application traffic within a larger flow, meaning you could set a policy to limit "entertainment" traffic, like iTunes downloads, Facebook games, or TV network streams to 25% of your total WAN bandwidth. The strategy, says Urban, is to "optimize first and contain when you have to."
Whether it's the iPhone launch or some unexpected national calamity, one thing's certain: In the age of online media, social networking, and viral videos, network mega-bursts are a fact of life. Draconian network prohibitions don't fly anymore. What CIO wants to be on the receiving end of an angry phone call from his boss demanding to know why he can't update his iPhone? But it doesn't have to be a choice between SharePoint and YouTube. IT had best put in technologies to control the flows and mitigate the damage, before the next network Armageddon.
Get lessons from five companies on the front lines of implementing unified communications. Also in the all-digital supplement of Network Computing: Mike Fratto on how to make the case for UC. Download the supplement now. (Free registration required.)