What to do about bandwidth hogs?

InTown Suites, a low-cost extended-stay living chain, had a problem with users of file sharing applications who were consuming all of its network bandwidth.

Based in Atlanta, InTown Suites has 139 properties around the country that use T-1 lines to link to a Cisco-powered virtual private network. InTown Suites provides its guests with free high-speed Internet access, but the bandwidth was being gobbled up by users of file sharing applications.

"We were having issues with guests file sharing using applications like BitTorrent and LimeWire," explained Stephen Bell, Director of IT for InTown Suites. "We would have one guest who would be file sharing, and that file sharing application would make so many connections that it would saturate the bandwidth on our T-1 and affect every other guest at that property."

Worse, InTown Suites employees couldn’t access key Web-based applications such as time and attendance and procurement because their T-1 lines were clogged.

InTown Suites tried blocking the IP and MAC addresses for the guests who were engaged in file sharing, but that didn’t work for long.

"Most of these guests were savvy enough that they’d assign themselves another IP address or MAC address from [Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol], so we just went back and forth with the fight," Bell said.

InTown Suites didn’t want to spend money on additional bandwidth because they believed it would just be consumed by the guests who were running file sharing applications. Instead, the company looked for a network appliance that would identify and block the file sharing traffic that was causing trouble.

"These file sharing applications are hard to identify because this particular traffic disguises itself as something else," Bell said. "We needed something that would look at the traffic and identify the traffic for what it really was."

Bell evaluated two devices that could do deep packet inspection: Packeteer (now owned by Blue Coat) and Exinda. Bell said the Exinda device was a better fit for his needs.

"The Packeteer did what it was supposed to do," Bell said. "It allowed us to isolate the office side from the guest side, prioritize the office side and manage the guest side bandwidth so it was more equitable. What it didn’t do was specifically identify packets and block the traffic that we wanted to block. Exinda was a much better solution for our specific problem."

InTown Suites spent around $250,000 to purchase an Exinda device for each of its locations. The company uses these devices to prioritize office traffic and to block peer-to-peer traffic.

Bell said the Exinda devices were simple enough to configure and install that the company could use onsite staff rather than flying IT personnel out to each location for installation.

Bandwidth management boost

Thanks to the improved bandwidth management from the Exinda devices, InTown Suites is putting all of its voice and data traffic on integrated T-1 lines at each of its properties, which are being provided by Qwest.

"The folks in the locations are thrilled about not having to fight this constant fight that the Internet is down and multiple guests are complaining and it’s all because one guest is doing something nefarious," Bell said. "On the guest side, we get a few complaints but it’s typically people who are trying to file share."

Since the Exinda devices were installed this year, the number of guest complaints about slow Internet service has dropped 95%, Bell estimates.

"Guest-side Internet issues were our number one helpdesk request at the corporate office, and that is no longer true," Bell said. "Our number one return on this investment is guest satisfaction. Then add to that…us not having to buy additional bandwidth."

The demand for deep packet inspection is growing for all kinds of enterprises, not just hospitality companies like InTown Suites, says Phil Hochmuth, a senior analyst with Yankee Group.

"To really get at what is going on with a lot of these new file sharing or Web 2.0 applications, you have to crack open the packets to see what’s in the stream and that requires a deeper level of intelligence," Hochmuth says. "It gets a little bit of a bad rap…but a lot of enterprises are looking at this."

Hochmuth says the cost of application-layer inspection devices is coming down, thanks to faster, cheaper processors.

"These technologies can be deployed more broadly, not just at your data center or just at your most critical link," Hochmuth adds. "People want deeper information about what kind of traffic is running over their networks, and they want it in more places."

This story, "What to do about bandwidth hogs?" was originally published by Network World.

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