Sunday, April 29, 2012

Social Networks and Workplace – will they ever Gel?

Social Networks and Workplace – will they ever Gel?

Social networking in the workplace is a major dilemma for today’s businesses more so in India compared to Western World. The question that constantly bothers the CIO/CEO and the organization is that will it help more or hurt more, or a combined effect of it is Help+ or Hurt-. Let me analyze here and see how it all pans out here and see whether i7 Networks can help in anyways to solve the dilemma.

Some of the biggest concerns are those which are always echoed by Indian CIOs which are the misuse of precious bandwidth for such non-productive tasks (i.e social media) plus unnecessary loss of productive time and worse all these access delays /hurts the performance of the business critical software which also plies using the same internet bandwidth. The deadliest of all what CIO/Legal confirm is the legal issue, what if users say something or leave a footprint which is not legal as per the law of the land.

But social media, you all agree to a large extent is very popular today and many people swear by it and is the cool thing today. I’ll even bet that most of you engage in it—at home, on the road, at work, or maybe even all of it. Nevertheless why there is so much astounding popularity of Social Networks? Various reasons and most popular is personal and other is of course business. On the personal front, social networking satisfies a powerful human need of association and communication – basically mainly socializing, and after all we are “Social Animals” and love to socialize, and in this busy mobile world, social networks provides a way to satisfy that Social behaviour of ours. Very well but let’s discuss the business side of the same. Today what we call it web 2.0 which includes all of social networking is used for many commercial purposes especially collaboration and many believe is an excellent way for business to network with customers, colleagues, partners, potential customers and potential new hires. Some HR believe that is an excellent tool to hire the new generation smart coders and is a must in the workplace to attract talent and to retain them. Some HR swear by it as the reason #1 for containing attrition in work place (especially in India and in cities like Bangalore where people get multiple offers today in just few hours). Also access to social media somehow makes employees feel the freedom at work and hence higher morale and hence better team work better productivity and definitely lesser attrition which directly relates to higher revenue, lesser cost and better quality products confirms the HRs (to those I spoke) and ditto feels the CEO. Definitely not as easy as dealing with pornography sites a decade back may be – it was simple then, just block it not so easy w.r.t Social media.

Of course there are downsides to allowing social network access too. It is so appealing, people are getting addicted to it and employers started to worry about the negative impact on their employees and on the organization overall. Productivity loss is one but the legal risks are far more today and of course to bandwidth drains and security problems. There are serious cons to allowing employees to access Social media.  Some of the serious issues are decreased productivity, network security breaches, bandwidth costs, network performance issues, legal liability, business information leaks, and damage to organizational reputation.  These concerns are very real and very difficult to counter. Consider just one of these, i.e., decreased productivity:

“Nucleus Research, an IT research company, reported in July last year that employee productivity drops 1.5 percent in companies that allow full access to Facebook in the workplace. That survey of 237 corporate employees also showed that 77 percent of workers who have a Facebook account use it during work hours. It also found that some employees use the social networking site as much as two hours a day at work, and that one in 33 workers surveyed use Facebook only while at work. And of those using Facebook at work, 87 percent said they had no clear business reason for accessing the network.”

The other ‘con’ arguments are equally weighty. Issues related to security, bandwidth, litigation, proprietary data, and company reputation can be extremely costly.
Basically to summarize, CIOs hate it, HR loves it, Legal doesn’t want to own it (the access to social media at workplace), employees want it but everyone agrees that you cannot prevent it or stop it completely as it is the “IN” thing today and you cannot escape not giving access to it.

So the question remains, “How do we maximize the benefits while minimizing the risks?” More specifically, the issue is, “How can we get our employees’ to restrict their use of social networking to business purposes only with a very minimal and safe personal front?”

This is where i7 Networks products plans to take a middle ground and helps employees get onto social network but is contained (or throttled) (so that business critical applications won’t take the speed hit), logged (and hence people are aware of what they are doing and are aware of it that it is logged and hence lesser risk legally speaking) and because of all these lesser risk in the bandwidth usage as well as cost and of course security is taken care of and makes employees and HR folks happy too ;-) More over we give enough control to IT as well as HR to fine-tune and optimize their controls over all forms of Internet usage, including social networking. Also one gets to not only see what apps user are using but even apps within the given apps can also be seen and controlled (example Facebook and say games apps within Facebook) – that is level of granularity that the product can provide.

To summarize, management needs to carefully analyze and weigh in all the factors as far as Social media access is considered and figure out the overall best interest of all parties and stakeholders, design the policy and explain the policy to all stake holders, get their buy-in and implement the same using the tool.  While it is not a total solution, it is certainly its foundation.  All aspects of implementation and enforcement depend on the design and clarity of the policy. A well-designed and thoughtful policy can go a long way toward controlling the use of social networking sites without damaging morale. We at i7 strongly feel that Social Networking is here to stay and blocking it completely is not the solution and not allowing it completely un-moderated is not going to help the concern either but best is to tow the middle line and use technology and products to design a policy which is safe and acceptable for all stake holders concerned!!

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Managing Network Bandwidth to Cut Unnecessary Wasteful Costs

Been on the road most of the month and one thing I have realized after talking to many potential customers is that Inappropriate Web use is resulting in excessive bandwidth consumption and is probably the single most reason behind network issues and network slowness. Typically, the worst offenders are Video downloads and streaming, social networking, music streaming, gaming sites, and P2P browser-based file sharing.  These are all widely accepted and used applications for use on corporate networks but the majority of them are often operating unchecked, opening your entire network up to bandwidth hogs, productivity-draining activity, and security risks. In India most service based companies block complete web usage or web access or some ration the time say an hour per user per day and most products based companies do allow round the clock access to the web. Nevertheless in all kinds what I have heard is that they don’t have neither visibility nor control over bandwidth usage like whom is hogging, which application is maximizing and how much and when the speed deteriorates. All fixes are reactive and slow to respond to and non-metric based action. 

There are multiple ways and policies you can implement to monitor your bandwidth, but before you chose any you need to watch for the patterns in your usage before any policies are done and figure out which is right for your business. Some of the questions that you need to ask are How much of your company’s bandwidth is being consumed by non-productive Web use?  Who are the top users of bandwidth on your company’s network?  Which sites or applications are the main bandwidth hogs? The answer seems easy enough, but this data is oftentimes scattered around your network.  Without easy access to these data (visualizing the network), many companies are simply unaware of possible lost revenue due to bandwidth congestion.  Fortunately J there are many companies (like i7 networks) which offer solutions around bandwidth management which includes visualization, monitoring, control and with Web filtering and complete reporting.

Usually such tools allow creating multiple groups and classes based on kinds of applications providing higher priority to business critical applications and throttling the lower recreational traffic and blocking others which are not allowed or of security concerns. Also many allow very detailed reporting of who is using how much and what application and what features/sub-apps within them consuming what % of bandwidth and if any are misusing. Also can ration the time of web usage which is attached to user login (say via Active directory integration) or ration the amount of data allowed or even the % of max bandwidth allowed (threshold) giving the network manager the maximum control over the bandwidth usage. Also certain controls can be activated automatically when a certain application or a certain user reached the so set threshold. Once a policy is activated, policy-specified traffic is throttled (shaped) by few notches of restriction on lower priority Web applications/Entertainment traffic (non biz traffic), allowing business-critical applications (VoIP, CRM, SAP, Oracle etc) to continue operating as needed.   

Visualization of the network traffic will be the most critical one and then how you apply the control or throttling becomes next critical process. While some allow throttling process on overall traffic volume rather than on the contents of the Internet packets, some advanced ones breaks the traffic down into content categories (classes) and bases its controls on those categories rather than just volume.  Some more allow throttling to be imposed on selected users or groups, regardless of the content they’re seeking while some allow throttling based on time (biz hours, after hours etc) and very few allow all of it (like i7 networks J).

Such tools should allow businesses with the insight needed to most efficiently manage and utilize their bandwidth, their Web traffic and in turn the productivity in the office.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

QoS and Home network

QoS and Home network

Last time I talked to someone who was sharing his bandwidth performance woes and was saying that he doubled his bandwidth pretty much doubling his budget but still he hits issues regarding bandwidth performance and his ISP provider keeps telling him that he is using his max bandwidth available and he has no idea why this is happening when he is doing very minimal bandwidth load.

On asking him hey how many IP devices do you have in your house and he stopped for a second to count and he could not believe his own count – it was 15 – Yes it was 15 and let me list what he told me
  • -          4 laptops
  • -          IP connected TV
  • -          3 smart phones
  • -          2 ipads
  • -          An Xbox
  • -          2 IP printers
  • -          1 other gaming devices
  • -          1 Home theatre PC

Little more analysis of his case showed that there were lot of downloads happening across many of these devices automatically and often it is required. Issue crops up say when his home theater PC often downloads media content from the Internet or xbox is downloading game updates or when gaming devices are being used for some online community games. When that happens the download path of the link becomes congested, and usually home networks not being more than 2 or 4mpbs, the performance of anything else running in the home network heavily degrades. This affects all other work at home and especially those when doing office work from home.

The optimal solution is shaping of the traffic or what we also call throttling of the traffic. Ideally we would like media content download from the home theatre PC to not hinder web browsing or other critical tasks done on the internet or xbox downloads not to interfere the office work done from home. One needs to classify and assign priority numbers to all these devices and kind of downloads, and that way we can slow down the low priority traffic when the high priority traffic comes. This shaping based on class of activity or download and prioritizing the traffic is called QoS and this technology is called Packet Shaping and there are devices and offerings on the cloud which can do that easily for a small fee per month which is much much cheaper than your cost of increasing the bandwidth for the same performance or throughput!!

Not just media download or even Xbox updates, there are many patch or OS upgrade downloads or even dropbox sync ups or say your ubuntu downloads and may be assigned low priority, while web browsing, youtube etc can be assigned medium priority and may be office related work like oracle or sap access etc can be made high priority. Even this prioritization and classes are most of the time done by the QoS companies (say like i7 networks J )and every rarely you need to tweak it and once you connect such a QoS service, you are done and ready to enjoy the maximum network performance and throughput at a minimal cost with the same existing bandwidth (budget) – Sweet – isn’t it J

We strongly believe that a person example here is not an exception but a rule and will become a major issue at homes of managing the limited bandwidth. Especially with the advent of new ipads and such devices which are data and bandwidth hungry, the problem only grows. Ofcourse one can solve these issues using shaping as well as reporting the usage per device, per activity and per user which might give a clear idea on what is happening (metrics) as well as  how to manage and if there are things that are not be accessed (blocked) and are there things that need be slowed down (contain) and ofcourse the things that need to be fastened (accelerate) and another dimension of those things that can be cached (caching).
Now after reading this, read some of the finding of IDC and you will understand the scary part of the bandwidth and the data:

“A new report from IDC has predicted that global internet traffic will increase by 32 per cent each year until 2015. However, the average spend on network equipment is only expected to increase by 10 per cent per year. The research, carried out by IDC, forecasts an 8 per cent increase in spending on equipment between 2011 and 2014. As a result of these figures, the IDC claims that internet service providers may be wondering how they will meet the demand without more spending on the infrastructure to allow it. The traffic increase is being blamed largely on the growing number of people watching video online – with the emergence of video streaming services, via the internet, to our TVs, for example. The increased use of Smartphones all over the world is another reason demand for bandwidth is growing exponentially. By 2014, more than 3 billion Smartphone devices will be in use globally. These devices make the internet more accessible than ever, this enables them to stay online for longer and from a greater number of locations. The final reason given is simply the growing user base. As internet use becomes normal in more and more developing countries, the user base is growing all the time.”
So best of luck with your bandwidth performance and budget J

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Surprised & Shocked: Usage of internet for browsing in Indian companies

Surprised & Shocked: Usage of internet for browsing in Indian companies

Met lot of CIOs of many Indian & MNC Bangalore based outfits and was shocked to find the fact that most companies won’t allow their employees to access the web (internet, browsing, video download, p2p, gmail, chatting etc) atall and they expect people to use their 3g enabled devices for such purposes and on their costing/network. Those companies who do allow will ration the time they use with some allowing only an hour at lunch time to some allowing few hours in non-business hours to few allowing round the clock but with a time limit for a given user within the 24-hour period.

No I am not arguing whether this is right or wrong and I am not arguing what is right but I was shocked when I found out this fact. I have been working in Bangalore for last 15 years and in that time frame worked for many companies but they were either my own or managed them for my US counterpart and never we did this rationing other than blocking few classes of sites for obvious reasons. Even if they had proposed such a block or rationing I would have vehemently opposed as I believe trusting people and measuring people based on work allotted rather than time worked. I think we need to move away from the time model which was introduced way back in the industrialization era in the manufacturing industry where obviously time worked was almost directly proportional to  the productivity and most were manual labour.

Anyways there are two issues here. One is related to allowing people independence to browse network at will and any amount, which is more of an HR issue and also cost to the company (bandwidth cost and perceived productivity loss) and second is how you manage such a bandwidth which is metered.

First one is something we need to take a holistic approach and even get all stake holders to the table including the employees, HR, Finance etc and have a discussion to see do the company really save money by restricting the bandwidth by rationing like this and will you really lose productivity which is a hard metric to measure in today’s creative 24X7 work culture. I don’t believe in it and in all my 20+ years of experience I have seen that people are more productive when you give them the freedom they want, measure them by work done and not meter things that way – this is very critical in a creative work culture.

Anyways coming to the second issue of how to manage bandwidth in such a case becomes a totally a different ball game and hence the precise reason why Western companies tools fail to fit into the Indian CIO’s idle tool scenario. This gave me a totally different idea on what metrics to show, what features to include, how to shape (throttle) and effectively manage the whole bandwidth and what else to include to make the CIO in the Indian context very happy and I am very happy that I learnt all these at the right time – as they say – In Rome, do what the Romans do and more so in India :-) :-)

(The Author is the CEO of India startup company focussed on bandwidth management and tools mainly targeting Indian SMBs)