Can Your Network Handle More Real-time Data?

Real-time data, especially video, is the wave of the future, and as this wave begins to break there are others already crashing onshore. Will you be inundated, or do you have the appropriate network infrastructure in place to stem the tide?

Global Internet video traffic surpassed global peer-to-peer (P2P) traffic in 2010, and the percentage of all forms of video is predicted to be approximately 90% of global consumer Internet traffic by 2015 (full details in this Cisco report). Coincident with this acceleration in video traffic is a general enterprise transition towards a shared ecosystem using SaaS and cloud computing. Though at first glance these trends may seem mostly unrelated, adding significant volumes of video traffic, or any real-time protocol (RTP) traffic for that matter, can have a significant, and typically adverse, effect on your application performance. Whether business critical or not, when there’s video available on the Internet it will find its way onto your corporate network so it’s important to have a full understanding of the benefits as well as the consequences of adding additional RTP (voice or video over IP) traffic to your network.

RTP traffic is highly sensitive to network latency, and the trend towards SaaS and Cloud computing typically increases overall network latency. Hence, as both these waves come ashore, it’s imperative that you have the infrastructure in place to monitor both application and RTP traffic, simultaneously, so you can keep from inundating your resources.

RTP has unique, and typically more demanding, requirements for network performance than “traditional” network data. However, you have only one network to carry all your traffic, both data and RTP, so you need to assess the effects that RTP will have on your application performance, and vice versa. Networks are often configured to give routing priority to RTP traffic, making application performance vulnerable when RTP traffic loads are high.

So, first and foremost, you need to have an accurate measurement of how much of the traffic on your network is RTP, and how much of that is mission critical.
At this point, it’s beneficial to make a distinction between VoIP and video. VoIP traffic is probably all enterprise driven, and is therefore mission critical. I don’t know of many rogue VoIP users on corporate networks.

Video is a different story. Though growing, the number of mission critical video-based applications is still very low, with web-based conferencing being by far the most prevalent. Most web-based conferencing still takes the form of relatively low bandwidth connections with an audio stream, and a real-time video stream thrown in from time to time.

And then there’s real-time video streaming. Maybe it’s YouTube, or Hulu, or something else, but in most cases it’s probably not mission critical. But it is likely to be far more bandwidth-intensive than anything else on your network, and if it’s being routed using QoS (Quality of Service) then it’s impacting your ability to deliver mission critical application data in the most efficient manner.

So how do you know where your vulnerabilities lie? Using packet-based network analysis and following these steps will help you characterize what’s going, and whether or not RTP traffic is threatening your network.

  1. Determine the mix of RTP and TCP traffic on your network.
    Any solution that can determine overall network protocols can do this, but some make it easier than others. It helps to be able to graph both data types in relation to the other, and over time, as the relationship is likely to be very dynamic. You should look for average and peak utilizations of each data type as well as times of day where the mix seems to be different. This should be done day after day for several weeks to get a solid baseline.
  2. Dissect your RTP traffic.
    Once you know your overall RTP traffic behavior, drill in and break that traffic down between VoIP and video. As we discussed, VoIP traffic is likely all mission-critical, while video traffic requires additional analysis.
  3. Dissect your video traffic.
    Be suspicious of all video traffic, especially high-bandwidth real-time video streams. Since most video traffic is web-based, one of the best ways to study video traffic is to look at the servers generating the traffic. All mission critical video activity, like web conferences, will involve well known servers from brand name service providers, like WebEx or GoToMeeting. Using filtering, eliminate data from these sources, making the remaining search easier. Then filter on other well known servers that are not likely to be mission critical, like YouTube, and you will quickly get a “picture” of unauthorized, or at least unnecessary, video traffic on your network. If the volumes are low, maybe you just let it ride, but if the volumes are high, or if application performance is degrading while these real-time video sessions are active, action is required.

Network utilization is very much like the ocean. Utilization ebbs and flows over longer cycles, like the tides, with occasional spikes in traffic similar to waves. And then there’s the occasional rogue wave that takes everyone by surprise. But if you’ve accurately assessed your overall usage as outlined above even the rogue wave will be manageable. Then it’s just the tsunami that you need to worry about…

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