Q&A: How To Prep for Your Holiday Network

This week, we again look to our industry experts to answer the question: How should you prepare your network for the holiday? Even though towards the end of December a lot of companies in the U.S. go on break, this does not mean that you should let your guard down as a network engineer. While the last week of December is traditionally a time to relax, the weeks after Thanksgiving and heading into the holiday season can be much more hectic, especially as employees are trying to fit more work into less time.

Here are some common questions that we receive when it comes to preparing your network for the holiday season. This week, we have Jim MacLeod, Product Manager at WildPackets, answering these questions.

Q: How should you best prepare for remote workers?
A: Holidays are a time when many people try to take time away from the office, but these days many people don’t leave their work at work. Remote work may increase as people try to finish end-of-year work before vacation and company shutdowns. This means extra connections on your VPN, and extra connections and traffic on your remote email. Check the stats for these systems to make sure that you won’t hit any limits, like license limitations on simultaneous connections, even if you experience a 30% increase in demand.

Q: What should I be prepared to monitor that I usually don’t?
A: During the holiday season, you may need to monitor some otherwise obscure servers, servers that you usually don’t regularly have to pay attention to. It’s going to be end-of-year crunch time, and all IT hands will be on deck to support critical business functions.

In order to know what you should pay close attention to, ask your different departments if they do more work during this season. Often times you’ll see that your finance team, shipping/receiving, billing or sales team will need more attention and have a higher demand and need to stay connected with little interruption. Quoting systems, order processing servers, accounting systems, and ERP will likely be on the top of your list to monitor. A lot of these tend to be custom, or at least highly customized, and knowing the right points of escalation will be important in case something breaks.

Q: If email problems occur, what should be my first steps?
A: Workers have mostly forgotten the days when it would take minutes or hours for emails to be delivered, so their natural reaction when an email doesn’t arrive immediately is to re-send it. However, email on the Internet works in a queue: if mail isn’t delivered, the sending SMTP server will re-send it later. However, if the server is already overloaded, that means users will accidentally increase the load – and then receive multiple copies later.

Troubleshooting email is relatively straightforward. Send yourself a test email from an external account, then watch the logs on your inbound server(s). Remember that a lot of the end-of-year emails may contain financial information or sales orders, which may get caught by an over-zealous anti-spam system. It wouldn’t hurt to send out an email to your employees reminding them how to check their spam quarantine folders.

Q: How else can I plan for the holiday time?
A: Most people are out of the office during the holiday, so after the end-of-year crunch may be a good time to unwrap the IT holiday gifts: install new equipment, including configuration and testing. If you’ve got baseline information about “normal” network demands, you can use that to design a realistic test scenario, so you don’t get an unpleasant surprise when everyone returns to work.

Q: OK, I set up new equipment—what should I be ready for when everyone comes back?
A: Keep in mind that IT team members aren’t the only ones with new toys: employees might have received new tablets or other devices for the holidays, and they may want to bring them to work, potentially overloading your wireless network.

Q: What sorts of applications could cause problems on the network during the holidays?
A: Holidays for many people aren’t complete without holiday music, so expect some of your users to listen online. There are generally two kinds of online music. Live streams of radio stations will use constant low-bandwidth traffic, which looks like a simplified version of VoIP (without the signaling). Online-only music services will use bulk downloads of the song, which looks like a standard web browser session.

Another kind of holiday traffic is online shopping. If your site uses web filtering, the additional traffic may create additional load on your web filtering system, so make sure it’s monitored in case of overload.

Of course, there are some people out there who will decide that the holidays are the perfect time to hack your site. While this isn’t any different than any other day, it means you shouldn’t let your guard down, because not everyone is filled with the holiday spirit.

Q: If you are expecting a lot more traffic to your website, how should you prepare?
A: To help prepare for the holiday season we suggest that you look into options like cloud bursting – Amazon’s AWS was initially created so they could rent out the server capacity they only needed for peak times like Cyber Monday. Now, it can be a cost-effective way to add capacity if your main servers can’t handle the load.

Additionally, most modern web sites use multiple layers, e.g. the front end, the dynamic layer, and the database, all with a load balancer and/or reverse proxy cache in front. If something in the back end gets overloaded, it’s going to propagate all the way to the users, and slow web sites can lead to abandoned shopping carts.

That concludes this Q&A session. Keep sending us your questions, and have a happy, hack-free holiday!

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