This article is intended as an objective guide for anyone trying to narrow down their options in the bandwidth controller market. Organizations today have a plethora of product options to choose from. To further complicate your choices, not only are there specialized bandwidth controllers, you’ll also find that most Firewall and Router products today contain some form of bandwidth shaping and QoS features .
What follows is an all-encompassing list of questions that will help you to quickly organize your priorities with regards to choosing a bandwidth shaper.
1) What is the Cost of Increasing your Bandwidth?
Although this question may be a bit obvious, it must be asked. We assume that anybody in the market for a bandwidth controller also has the option of increasing their bandwidth. The costs of purchasing and operating a bandwidth controller should ultimately be compared with the cost of increasing bandwidth on your network.
2) How much Savings should you expect from your Bandwidth Controller?
A good bandwidth controller in many situations can increase your carrying capacity by up to 50 percent. However, beware, some technologies designed to optimize your network can create labor overhead in maintenance hours. Labor costs with some solutions can far exceed the cost of adding bandwidth.
3) Can you out-run your Organization’s Appetite for Increased Bandwidth with a One-Time Bandwidth Upgrade?
The answer is yes, it is possible to buy enough bandwidth such that all your users cannot possibly exhaust the supply. The bad news is that this solution is usually cost-prohibitive. Many organizations that come to us have previously doubled their bandwidth, sometimes more than once, only to be back to overwhelming congestion within a few months after their upgrade. The appetite for bandwidth is insatiable, and in our opinion, at some point a bandwidth control device becomes your only rational option. Outrunning your user base usually is only possible where Internet infrastructure is subsidized by a government entity, hiding the true costs. For example, a small University with 1000 students will likely not be able to consume a true 5 Gigabit pipe, but purchasing a pipe of that size would be out of reach for most US-based Universities.
4) How Valuable is Your Time? Are you a Candidate for a Freeware-type Solution?
What we have seen in the market place is that small shops with high technical expertise, or small ISPs on a budget, can often make use of a freeware do-it-yourself bandwidth control solution. If you are cash-strapped, this may be a viable solution for you. However, please go into this with your eyes open. The general pitfalls and risks are as follows:
a) Staff can easily run up 80 or more hours trying to save a few thousand dollars fiddling with an unsupported solution. And this is only for the initial installation & set-up. Over the useful life of the solution, this can continue at a high-level, due to the unsupported nature of these technologies.
b) Investors do not like to invest in businesses with homegrown technology, for many reasons, including finding personnel to sustain the solution, upgrading and adding features, as well as overall risk of keeping it in working order, unless it gives them a very large competitive advantage. You can easily shoot yourself in the foot with prospective buyers by becoming too dependent on homegrown, freeware solutions, in order to save costs. When you rely on something homegrown, it generally means an employee or two holds the keys to the operational knowledge, hence potential buyers can become uncomfortable (you would be too!).
5) Are you Looking to Enforce Bandwidth Limits as part of a Rate Plan that you Resell to Clients?
For example , let’s say that you have a good-sized backbone of bandwidth at a reasonable cost per megabit, and you just want to enforce class of service speeds to sell your bandwidth in incremental revenue chunks.
If this is truely your only requirement, and not optimization to support high contention ratios, then you should be careful not to overspend on your solution. A basic NetEqualizer or Allot system may be all that you need. You can also most likely leverage the bandwidth control features bundled into your Router or Firewall. The thing to be careful of if using your Router/Firewall is that these devices can become overwhelmed due to lack of horsepower.
6) Are you just Trying to Optimize the Bandwidth that you have, based on Well-Known Priorities?
If you have a very static network load, with a finite well-defined set of applications running through your enterprise, there are application shaping (Layer-7 shaping) products out there such as the Blue Coat PacketShaper,which uses deep packet inspection, that can be set up once to allocate different amounts bandwidth based on application. If the PacketShaper is a bit too pricey, the Cymphonics product can also detect most common applications.
If you are trying to optimize your bandwidth on a variable, wide-open plethora of applications, then you may find yourself with extremely high maintenance costs by using a Layer-7 application shaper. A generic behavior-based product such as the NetEqualizer will do the trick.
Note : We are seeing quite a bit of Encryption on common applications. We strongly recommend avoiding layer 7 type devices for public Internet traffic as the accuracy is diminishing due to the fact that encrypted traffic is UN-classifieble , a heuristics based behavior based approach is advised
7) Make sure what looks elegant on the cover does not have hidden costs by doing a little research on the Internet.
Yes this is an obvious one too, but lest you forget your due diligence!
Before purchasing any traffic shaping solution you should try a simple internet search with well placed keywords to uncover objective opinions. Current testimonials supplied by the vendor are a good source of information, but only tell half the story. Current customers are always biased toward their decision sometimes in the face of ignoring a better solution.
If you are not familiar with this technology, nor have the in-house expertise to work with a traffic shaper, you may want to consider buying additional bandwidth as your solution. In order to assess if this is a viable solution for you, we recommend you think about the following: How much bandwidth do you need ? What is the appropriate amount for your ISP or organization? We actually dedicated a complete article to this question.
8) Are you a Windows Shop? Do you expect a Microsoft-based solution due to your internal expertise?
With all respect to Microsoft and the strides they have made toward reliability in their server solutions, we believe that you should avoid a Windows-based product for any network routing or bandwidth control mission.
To be effective, a bandwidth control device must be placed such that all traffic is forced to pass through the device. For this reason, all manufacturers that we are aware of develop their network devices using a derivative of Linux. Linux-based is based on Open Source, which means that an OEM can strip down the operating system to its simplest components. The simpler operating system in your network device, the less that can go wrong. However, with Windows the core OS source code is not available to third-party developers, hence an OEM may not always be able to track down serious bugs. This is not to say that bugs do not occur in Linux, they do, however the OEM can often get a patch out quickly.
For the Windows IT person trained on Windows, a well-designed networking device presents its interface via a standard web page. Hence, a technician likely needs no specific Linux background.
9) Are you a CIO (or C level Executive) Looking to Automate and Reduce Costs ?
Bandwidth controllers can become a means to do cool things with a network. Network Administrators can get caught up reading fancy reports, making daily changes, and interpreting results, which can become extremely labor-intensive. There is a price/benefit crossover point where a device can create more work (labor cost) than bandwidth saved. We have addressed this paradox in detail in a previous article.
10) Do you have any Legal or Political Requirement to Maintain Logs or Show Detailed Reports to a Third-Party (i.e. management ,oversight committee, etc.)?
A government requirement to provide data wire taps dictated by CALEA?
Or a monthly report on employee Internet behavior?
Related article how to choose the right bandwidth management solution
Links to other bandwidth control products on the market.
Packet Shaper by Blue Coat
NetEqualizer ( my favorite)
Exinda Packet Shaper and Riverbed tend to focus on the enterprise WAN optimization market.
Cymphonix comes from a background of detailed reporting.
Very solid product for bandwidth shaping.
Exinda from Australia has really made a good run in the US market offering a good alternative to the incumbants.
For those of you who are wed to Windows NetLimiter is your answer