Feature

Analysis: A streaming World Cup

News analysis Streaming of major sporting events puts networks under strain and IT suppliers must be ready, says Amro Gebreel

With the World Cup one of the first major sporting events to be streamed over the network, there were fears that it would have a big impact. So what can those trying to keep a lid on TV viewing at work in the channel learn from the events of the past month? Plenty about the strain on the network.
 
According to research by F5 Networks, 1.3 million adults were planning to watch the World Cup at work. This threatened a huge dip in productivity, with costs - based on average wage figures from the National Statistics Office - estimated at over £22m of UK business revenue lost per game watched.

With 25 games played during working hours, the total productivity cost to UK businesses might have approached £550m. Predictably, men in southern England between the ages of 16 and 34 made up the largest group of viewers.

With the major TV channels also streaming World Cup games over the web, networks faced the significant challenge of coping with very large volumes of media. Possible effects were to slow the rest of the network, affecting transfer times for files and slowing access to business applications such as e-mail and cloud apps.

Organisations were warned to be particularly vigilant when England played, with network managers needing to consider how to deal with potentially huge spikes in network traffic. Network managers were advised to put in place policies - potentially technology-enforced - that restricted employees to watching selected games on certain PCs or in particular parts of the office, giving them full control over what travels over the corporate network.

This was a much more serious issue for organisations than the occasional cigarette break - it was the equivalent of popping out to watch Wicked instead of taking a half-hour lunch break.

Adrian Groeneveld, marketing director, EMEA, at Pillar Data Systems, told MicroScope that listening to or watching home-team games was a great way to lift morale and help team spirit - although perhaps not during England's final game of the tournament. Of course, not everyone is interested in such sporting events, so it is important for IT suppliers to deliver on their service promises, game or no game.

A survey conducted by the UK's biggest IT specialist recruitment website, the IT Job Board, revealed that World Cup fever had failed to reach UK IT departments. Only 14% of IT professionals booked annual leave to watch the matches, and just 8% admitted they would call in sick to watch the England games, so companies were not anticipating problems with staff absenteeism.

The survey polled both IT staff and employers, and 62% of employees said they would not be watching any games during working hours. More than half of respondents suggested their viewing habits had changed in recent years - so there was bound to be an online surge during World Cup games, even just to check on scores.

Key games
Only 21% of respondents said their employers had put plans in place to enable them to watch key games during working hours, and 15% thought their employer was stricter than for the previous World Cup - perhaps a reflection of the economic climate, needing to maximise staff activity.

Almost 70% of employers said they were not concerned about absenteeism, but 80% were permitting flexible working hours, and exactly half said they would allow staff to take time off.

Alex Farrell, managing director of the IT Job Board, said: "A large number of commentators suggested that the first round of the World Cup failed to live up to expectations. It would seem IT pros agreed, with small numbers taking annual leave, and many showing their professionalism by not pulling sickies. It is positive to see that businesses put measures in place, such as flexible working, but the survey results led us to believe absenteeism would not pose a problem."

Opal, a dedicated provider of network technologies, warned UK businesses before the World Cup that overloaded networks caused by staff tuning into streamed matches did not need to happen, and with the right approach, football fans and IT managers could work harmoniously.

Network statistics from Opal showed a 100% increase in traffic across its multi-protocol label switching (MPLS) network during England's win over Slovenia on Wednesday 23 June, but no bottlenecks were reported in the network.

Opal is attributed this to the extra capacity it had added to its network in recent months, as well as upgrades to its hardware platforms and increased capacity at key exchange points where audio and video streaming traffic is carried. As the World Cup progressed, bandwidth demands across the UK's networks continued to soar, but if businesses were partnered with a prepared network operator, working in sync with their IT managers, then problems should be avoided, said Opal.

Andy Lockwood, the provider's transformation director, said, "It was inevitable an event like the World Cup would attract this level of interest, especially as the quality of online video is better than it has ever been, due to high-speed, high-resilience broadband connections. But failing to prepare really was preparing to fail, and for those businesses partnering a network operator that was ill-equipped, or IT departments and network operators not working collaboratively, problems could have arisen.

Right questions

"As video streaming becomes more important strategically for businesses, these issues are only going to grow, regardless of whether a major sporting event is on. Now is the time for businesses to ask the right questions of their network operators."

Opal suggests companies have four options to ensure such major sporting events do not compromise the connections vital to their business. The first is to stop it. Second, encourage it but be vigilant - some broadband providers can view real-time internet traffic statistics, pinpoint the root causes for excess use and manage it accordingly.

Third, encourage it and increase bandwidth - developments in network capability means it is far more cost-effective to upgrade your bandwidth ahead of events that might generate major traffic. Fourth, encourage it but with peace of mind - some providers can offer network performance checks and identify ways to improve end-to-end performance.

This was first published in July 2010

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