Maybe Skinner was right: Conditioning user behavior on the network

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ITworld.com –

First-year psychology students routinely study B.F. Skinner's experiments in conditioning patients to respond to certain stimuli. Perhaps network managers should take a lesson from psychology and begin the process of conditioning their network clients to expect a certain response to the use of excessive bandwidth. The only worry is whether the cure would be worse than the disease.

Right now, the traditional solution to bandwidth demands is to buy more bandwidth, which means either adding more circuits or leased lines on the WAN, or scaling the LAN by moving up to Fast Ethernet or Gigabit Ethernet. Another possible solution is to use quality of service (QoS) products to prioritize traffic, as my fellow ITworld.com columnist Ed Mier recently pointed out. However, while it's currently possible to provide piecemeal solutions, there are no interoperable end-to-end QoS products on the market at the moment.

Another solution is to deploy usage-based accounting and billing software. Vendors such as Apogee Networks, XACCT, and Telemate.Net say that non-IT employees don't think in terms of bandwidth. To them, IP packets sounds like a health problem. So how do you condition them to be sensitive to bandwidth usage?

These vendors propose calculating an actual cost for network traffic, just as organizations do for postal and telephone usage. You can set volume policies whereby larger data flows are charged a base rate plus a premium, and off-hours traffic is charged at a lower rate but takes longer to arrive. The use of some applications can be encouraged by applying lower charges to departments that access them, while higher charges can discourage the use of other applications.

Some say charging back for bandwidth is more trouble than it's worth. But for centralized companies that are moving toward service-level management, chargebacks are an excellent way to establish company-wide priorities while still giving individual business units the freedom to decide on whether they want to pay for enhanced service for applications that are more critical to them than they are to the rest of the organization.

Because charging for network usage has such a profound effect on corporate culture, you must use great sensitivity in implementing it. One possible way of softening its impact is to generate chargeback reports for a while without implementing the chargebacks. During this time, managers can show employees what amounts would be charged to their departments based on current usage, and try to change their employees' behavior. When you begin to see better bandwidth usage patterns, you can initiate the chargebacks.

If you choose to try charging for bandwidth usage, you should look for the following features in a usage-based accounting system:

  • Sensitivity to all the network protocols in use on your network, including IP, IPX, SNA, and any others. Without this sensitivity, you will not be able to differentiate between the chargeback rates for mainframe traffic, Web traffic, and network applications.

  • Sensitivity to such application-level protocols such as HTTP, FTP, and NFS. Such sensitivity lets you encourage some kinds of traffic while discouraging others of lower priority, such as Web browsing.

  • Time-sensitive metering.

  • Rich billing and traffic-reporting functions.

  • RMON2, NetFlow, and accounting MIB support.

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