The latest figures from the London Internet Exchange (Linx) indicate that demand for network capacity in some companies is exceeding 3Gbps at peak periods for the first time.
It may seem obvious that, as the internet becomes an increasing part of everyday life, the traffic running on it will grow exponentially. But these figures are put into perspective when you realise that many companies have provisioned their networks to deal with the same amount of traffic as the largest internet exchange in Europe.
So the question is: are companies massively over-provisioning their networks because they are taken in by vendor hype or sales tactics? Or are they simply planning much further into the future than before when fitting today's systems?
Keith Mitchell, chief executive of Linx, claimed that taking on extra bandwidth is a good way to solve network congestion. "Bandwidth has become incredibly cheap. High bandwidth gives you the ability to shift data quickly and a high reaction time in real time," he said.
But according to industry analysts, the over-capacity problem may lie with network managers themselves. Many are taking on more bandwidth than they need to avoid having to manage their systems properly.
Pim Bilderbeek, IDC's vice president of network research for Europe, said that increasing bandwidth is an easy get-out clause to take some of the strain off a busy network. "The other option is to go into the management of the network and look at software and VPNs [virtual private networks]. But this is very technical. It is easier just to use extra bandwidth," he said.
Steve Broadhead, director of networking at NSS, agreed that managing networks properly is important and problems cannot be dealt with adequately simply by throwing more bandwidth at them.
Good management practices have become more important as a result of increases in internet traffic, he added. "The key issue for managing internet traffic is not the amount of bandwidth, but the ability to handle a huge number of requests for packets, most of which are actually very small," he said. "How many huge downloads does the average internet user make compared with hundreds or thousands of small ones, like standard emails?"
But Broadhead acknowledged that some networks, which handle large amounts of traffic, do simply need a lot of bandwidth. This is especially true of Ethernet local area networks (Lan) - until recently, the only way to offer good quality services using such networks was by over-provision.
Ian Sheppard, Lan marketing manager at integrator Telindus K-net, said: "We have built Lans using ATM and Gigabit Ethernet, which do carry that amount of load (that is 3Gbps), usually high-quality video or large image traffic."
Different traffic needs
But it is also important for network managers to differentiate between Lans and Wans (wide area networks), largely because they are used for different things. Most of the really heavy traffic loads run on the core of the network, but bandwidth-intensive applications such as Lotus Notes enterprise resource planning packaging would never be run over a Wan.
Neil Rickard, Gartner's research director for networking, said corporate Wans usually only run at rates of 155Mbps to 622Mbps. "But many campus Lans use Gigabit Ethernet or multiple implementations of Gigabit Ethernet speeds. Often the traffic loadings are lower and it's not unusual for them to be only 20 per cent," he said.
Another reason for the over-capacity is that many network managers plan for the future when building today's enterprise networks, a strategy that includes looking at how much bandwidth to make available.
"Just because people are putting in 10 Gigabit Ethernet doesn't mean they have that amount of traffic. When you plan such a large IT spend, you have to justify these things over a long period of time," said Rickard.
Companies have a number of options when choosing where the bandwidth for their network systems will come from: they can lay their own cables, buy dedicated cabling - known as dark fibre - from a telco, or lease a line from a service provider.
Mark Pavill, managing consultant at integrator Logical, said: "Dark fibre costs a few thousand pounds, depending on distance. It is better for Mans (metropolitan area networks) and campus networks, where buildings are close together."
When signing up to a leased line, however, companies need to ensure that they do not over-provision or they will pay the price - literally. If the contract offers the same amount of bandwidth for incoming and outgoing traffic, network managers should check whether there is more traffic going in one direction and adjust the contract accordingly to fit their requirements.
Danny Williams, Wan consultant at Telindus Kent, warned: "For companies to reduce over-provisioning, they need to know their traffic patterns and not rely on telcos."
If you are planning for the future and expect high growth rates in your network traffic, over-provisioning may be the only way to ensure your systems will not be ripped out too quickly.
But if your network is not carrying large amounts of traffic and growth rates are slower, can you justify how much it will cost your company to over-provision?
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