Is Your Network In Shape For The Olympics?

The Cabinet Office’s official advice warns that business could suffer degraded, or even lost, Internet connection during the London Olympics. Companies have also been advised to relieve pressure on the transport infrastructure and rush hour traffic by encouraging more staff to work from home during the event.

It brings to mind a Punch cartoon from the late 50s: a moonlight scene of idyllic English countryside, with a little leafy lane winding between hedges but stuffed with crawling bumper to bumper traffic. A woman in the nearest car is saying to her husband: “That paper – the one recommending bye-ways to avoid Bank Holiday traffic – it’s got three million readers!”. The message still stands today: move traffic off one network, and you risk congesting another.

It might sound like a good solution to the problem: encourage staff to work from home to help during the Olympics to alleviate pressure on London’s transport system, but is it? The problem is, that home workers increasingly rely on the Internet to keep in touch with the office via their virtual private networks (VPNs), so, more home workers means more Internet traffic – already at risk from the surge in communications during the Olympics – and greater uncertainty for a business to support those workers using its traditional VPN structure…

The Olympic challenge

Some 8 million spectator tickets are on sale, and park and ride spaces are being arranged for 21,000 cars per day, and over 135,000 hotel rooms promised within 50km of the Olympic Park. Within the Olympic village itself there will be accommodation for 17,320 athletes and staff, all critically needing to be in the right place at the right time over hundreds of venues.

What an opportunity for people to get lost or delayed – at an event where time is measured in fractions of a second. The London Olympics, however, enjoys one major advantage over previous games – the ubiquity of smartphones, with Google maps to save one from getting lost and always-on contact to keep in touch with other members of the party. The London Games will be the very first smartphone Olympics – June 29th 2012 marks the fifth anniversary of the iPhone – and this will have a major impact.

There will be better than ever television coverage in 2012 – with 3-D and high definition well established – but add to that a tide of personal Olympic experiences uploaded to social media. Ofcom expects wireless traffic to double during the event as sports officials, security operatives, organisers, emergency services and media as well as spectators rely on their mobile phones. A further issue is that an enormous amount of traffic will be media uploads from smartphones, in an infrastructure better geared to support downloads from the Internet.

The seriousness of the problem is reflected in measures already taken, such as the closing down of analogue television at the 474.0MHz frequency to free-up more spectrum, and the use of spectrum on short-term loan from the Ministry of Defence, the Civil Aviation Authority, the Maritime Coastguard Agency, and the Home Office, to help support wireless camera transmissions.

The impact on business

The threat has been summed up as a “doubling of the London’s population” – this is an exaggeration, but it does point to the obvious problem of further delays for commuters and mobile workers needing to travel during working hours. What do these people do when waiting for the traffic to move or for the next bus or train? They probably call the office to explain.

Then there are the people who have been encouraged to work from home. They will very likely be relying on slower Internet access than they are used to on the office network, and will fall back on voice calls for quick updates with colleagues when their VPN connection suffers. The data burden will depend on the nature of the business – anything from a few e-mails a day up to large video files being circulated by the media department for approval.

Businesses sited further out of town, without the impact on commuting, may be free of these problems and able to work on as usual with a full office. Bear in mind, however that most of the high profile Olympic events will take place during office hours, presenting an enormous temptation.

Staff scattered over the office streaming video and downloading results of Olympic highlights is not exactly ‘business-as-usual’. If you block such traffic on the office system, you push it onto the mobile network. Colleagues who are not interested in that particular event will resent the degradation of network performance while others are gawping.

Small offices can take steps at a personal level to address this challenge, maybe agreeing times for scheduled breaks or providing a single feed of the event on the network instead a flood of independent downloads – or even banning any Olympic coverage. On a larger scale it will be necessary to find out just how much of this disruption the network can handle, and maybe lay down policies to ensure that critical business applications take priority over personal and recreational traffic. This will mean testing the network before the event.

Getting in training

Network testing means more than simply piling traffic onto the system to see how much it can carry. Most real life traffic comes in bursts, an overlay of different traffic patterns, creating impact at various points around the network infrastructure – access, security, load-balancing, storage, server capacity etc. Every transaction on the network has pattern that is partly dictated by the technology and communication protocols, but also by the human or application generating the traffic. Voice calls include moments of silence, Internet browsing has different rhythms, while a media file download could come as one big rush.

So the real test is to simulate such real-world traffic and increase it to peak levels and beyond. Ideally this requires a trained tester whose experience of what to look for and where to apply pressure will save a lot of trial and error by less experienced operators. Sophisticated test devices, however, go a long way to creating realistic conditions because they can record samples of everyday traffic and multiply those typical behaviours many times to simulate real rush traffic.

What we are testing for here, however, is not just an increase in everyday traffic, but a surge that is skewed by the particular pressures of the London Olympics, and that does need the foresight of an experienced tester. Consider the effects of potentially thousands of VPN home workers on a network currently supporting a few hundred – how does the IT Department test that?

The more advanced network test devices will simulate massive volumes of network traffic and can be programmed to reflect these unusual pressures. The device will not only monitor what happens to the network performance, it will also help pinpoint bottlenecks or contentions in the existing system. This information can save a lot of money – rather than imposing a major upgrade of the whole network, a few minor upgrades or tweaks might be all that is necessary to make the network robust enough.

Exactly what are we testing for? We cannot say, because the nature of the exercise is to be prepared for the unexpected – maybe a disaster, or a dramatic final that has caught the attention of the whole world and causes overload beyond anything predicted.

Doesn’t this invalidate the whole idea of testing for realistic conditions? No, because an experienced test engineer will have a very good idea of the sort of extremes that are likely to happen and will be able to ensure very great confidence. As for the truly unexpected, remember that knowledge of the system’s limits is valuable in itself. If you have data on the peak capacity of your network under all likely load conditions, then real time traffic monitoring will provide a warning if conditions approach these critical limits. The IT department can then take remedial measures – before the system crashes.

The London Olympics will be a celebration of raised expectations – broken records, winning performances, individuals and nations excelling themselves. Your staff may also have raised expectations of how they can work smoothly around the problems out on the streets while enjoying the added stimulus of keeping in touch with their favourite sports. So, be prepared, get your system tested, and aim for record breaking performance ahead of the competition.

As Vice President for EMEA, David Hill is responsible for both Performance Analysis and Service Assurance businesses, including the Wireless business. David joined Spirent Communications in 2001 to run Performance Analysis Broadband in EMEA, over the next few years he added both the Wireless and Service Assurance businesses to his responsibilities. David’s career in Telecommunications spans 27 years.