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FAQ guide: Bandwidth management services projects

Bandwidth management services can be a lucrative addition to any networking solution provider's portfolio. Learn how to provide bandwidth management products and services in this FAQ guide with IT expert Ron Barrett.

Offering bandwidth management services can be very lucrative, but a bandwidth management project can be difficult if you don't have the proper know-how. In this FAQ guide, IT consultant and network infrastructure specialist Ron Barrett takes you through the important questions service providers must ask customers before deciding upon a solution. Ron covers how to choose the appropriate bandwidth management methodology, how to manage bandwidth management tools and products, and knowing when to add bandwidth, among other critical issues. In the supplemental bandwidth management services podcast, Ron sits down with to discuss bandwidth management services even further, such as separating perception from reality when dealing with your customer's bandwidth issues.

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What bandwidth issues is your customer currently experiencing? 
What is your customer's current network topology? 
Does your customer have mission-critical applications that travel across the WAN? 
How will the bandwidth management product be managed? 
Is my customer familiar with bandwidth management and traffic measurement tools? 
What is the right bandwidth management methodology? 
When is adding bandwidth a good idea? 
What complications should I prepare for that can arise during a deployment? 

What bandwidth issues is your customer currently experiencing?

As elementary as this question seems, knowing your customer's bandwidth issues helps to bridge the gap between perception of bandwidth issues and the reality. Many factors affect the user's perspective of sufficient bandwidth; in fact, in most cases there is sufficient bandwidth available. Most organizations measure bandwidth in terms of response times. This is not correct since factors such as individual computer speeds or components on the network may actually cause the slow responses. The type of service you provide depends on knowing the way network traffic moves in the organization.

For example, many users equate sufficient bandwidth with download speeds. This is not a good determinant because this factors in the size of the file, the time of day when the file is being downloaded, and how much of the bandwidth is being used. A company may have a time of day when Internet and internal traffic is heaviest, utilizing 90% to 95% of the traffic, and for the rest of the day there is maybe only 30% to 40% utilization. A desktop with a 10 Mb NIC card connected to a CAT5 Ethernet cable will be significantly slower than a 1 Gb NIC card connected to a CAT6 Ethernet cable. Likewise, the switch or firewall might have insufficient throughput speeds or be configured incorrectly.

What is your customer's current network topology?

If you are offering bandwidth management services or products to customers, it is imperative that you know how that traffic is moving both in and out of the organization -- consult the network topology. If a client has 25 users running email and Internet and attempting to run VoIP with a 128 Kbps connection, it is safe to say that a bandwidth management solution is not going to help anything. It is equally important to know that internal communications are "optimized" at the desktop and network backbone levels. This optimization will help to get the most out of the bandwidth management.

A client with sufficient bandwidth that is being underutilized would be a prime candidate for bandwidth management, as well as a client that has the need to move large amounts of data between physical locations, as in the case of data replication for disaster recovery and business continuity.

Does your customer have mission-critical applications that travel across the WAN?

We know that many organizations need to attach files to email, and VoIP has become more common in today's technology environments. However, we need to understand the core applications that create potential for bandwidth bottlenecks. We are usually prepared for Web servers, mail servers and database servers, but what other mission-critical applications may exist? Is the organization replicating or backing up data to a remote site? Is there a large mobile workforce that needs access via VPN? Is the company hosting Web services (extranets, FTP servers or collaboration software such as SharePoint or Office Communications Server)? Knowing what these core applications are and the necessary priority will help to ensure that you deploy successful bandwidth management.

Many mission-critical applications, such as enterprise resource planning (ERP) or customer relationship management (CRM) software, have the ability to be accessed remotely. In many cases, they are shared from a central database to branch offices and are a great example of the types of solutions that will need a bandwidth management product to ensure maximum availability.

How will the bandwidth management product be managed?

We need to consider whether this is a single- or multiple-location product. It is also important to know whether this will be managed by a team or an individual. This changes how you think about security of the managed service or product. Will it be managed in-house or remotely? Some organizations prefer to outsource the management of bandwidth; others like to keep it close at hand. It is also important to consider the possibility of remote manageability.

Common management platforms for bandwidth management are Web-based interfaces or installable clients. Companies needing to optimize the management should consider a Web-based solution. Since most client-based solutions require multiple installs if there are many administrators, these installed clients tend to be less flexible in remote management and also usually require physical access to a site.

Is my customer familiar with bandwidth management and traffic measurement tools?

Your customers don't necessarily need to know bandwidth management and traffic measurement, but it is important to find out whether they are familiar with these tools. This is something of a secondary question, but it is useful to know your target audience nonetheless. Will they need to be trained on the solution you are suggesting, or do they need a ground-up understanding of bandwidth management? This will ease the transition and knowledge transfer that needs to take place at the end of the project.

The key aspects of a bandwidth management solution are monitoring, management and optimization. Monitoring technologies such as SNMP, Packet Sniffing and NetFlow can be used to determine current and historical bandwidth usage, as well as management tools that throttle traffic based on application layer protocols. Optimizers can be used to shape bandwidth based on host, port or IP address.

What is the right bandwidth management methodology?

Most bandwidth management solutions can manage bandwidth based on IP, MAC address, protocols, subnets, URLs and even the particular application. There is no shortage of criteria for "shaping traffic" and easing congestion. Knowing how a company wants to manage its bandwidth is important. Most companies have a preconceived notion of how a solution ought to work -- they believe that bandwidth management will automate the throttling of unnecessary traffic and allocate more traffic to what is important. This is true to an extent, as many bandwidth management products offer built-in traffic shapers for protocols such as P2P applications. However, configuration may be necessary to ensure that applications such as email, databases and mission-critical applications are receiving optimal bandwidth.

When is adding bandwidth a good idea?

Are you considering adding bandwidth? Are you looking to avoid an unnecessary bandwidth upgrade? Or do you want to ensure that the bandwidth upgrade is allocated to ensure the best results for critical applications?

What an organization is looking to get out of bandwidth management will change how you approach the project. If these questions arise, it is important to provide a product or service that can possibly aggregate all the available bandwidth. Sometimes, in the midst of a deployment, we come to realize that the planning that was done did not address some bottleneck that was overlooked or previously unknown. Perhaps a database that feeds information between branch offices is overlooked. How you then address this bump in the road will depend on the organization's view of this question.

What complications should I prepare for that can arise during a deployment?

The supporting infrastructure tends to be a major hurdle in these deployments when offering bandwidth management services. If the bandwidth management method is software based, additional server hardware is needed. If it is hardware based, it is important to consider where in the topology the bandwidth management device is going to be placed. Typically, it goes between the network and the Internet. Where this puts the firewall in each scenario will have an impact on performance.

The throughput of the device will also affect performance. The experience of the staff is another major hurdle, so good knowledge transfer is an important key to a successful deployment. Taking time to interview the IT staff and get a grasp of their understanding of bandwidth management will help in preparing materials that will benefit the client after the project is complete. Documenting the process is the key to good knowledge transfer. It is important to consider all steps and configurations and to go over these with the customer at the end of the deployment. A successful knowledge transfer starts at the beginning of the project.

About the author

Ron Barrett is the founder of RARE-TECH, an IT training and consulting company. Ron is a specialist in network, security and IT management infrastructure. Be sure to catch Ron's daily blog, "A Better Windows World," on Network World's Microsoft subnet.

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