The Olympics, Part 1: A Test of IT Strength, Endurance and Discipline

The 2008 Summer Olympics kicked off in Beijing Friday, and this year’s Summer Games will serve up highlights outside of athletic prowess and national pride. China’s hosting of this year’s Games has made them a flash point for a wide range of issues having to do with China and international relations, from freedom of the press, human rights, Tibet and terrorism to pollution and climate change.

Internet security vendors have detected and warned Netizens about malware threats related to the Olympics. With Internet video coming of age, the 2008 Games will serve as a test of the ability of the Internet to reliably and securely distribute massive amounts of live and delayed digital video coverage from any given event.

With NBC planning to provide 2,200 hours of online coverage, the Games will also highlight viewers’ appetites for such coverage. And that’s likely to lead IT network managers to take a long, hard look at their Internet filtering technology, as well as the policies in place that govern what employees are allowed to view in the workplace — how, when and for how long.

Streaming Video Worries

NBC is working with streaming video content delivery provider Limelight Networks to ensure that the public Internet isn’t swamped and severely degraded by their coverage.

The specter of degraded network performance travels right down the line and may cause problems for enterprise networks and IT staff. It’s not only streaming video coverage from the Games that enterprise business and IT managers need to be concerned about. They should be anticipating effects on employees’ productivity as well, according to Patrick Murray, director of product management at Internet filtering specialist 8e6.

Sweeping Internet video coverage of this year’s Games is “just a continuation of the growing nature of steaming media,” Murray commented. “We’ve been policing this with the March Madness spikes you get in the States, but obviously this is on a grander scale. It’s happening over a longer time scale, during the work week … and it’s the first time there’s been this type of capability, so we’re in uncharted areas to some degree.”

8e6 offers a Linux-based Internet filtering appliance that enterprises are using in concert with their network security, Web access monitoring and rights provisioning policies to monitor, limit and at times block access to particular Web sites and types of content.

“It’s hard to give you fixed numbers, but in some past cases streaming media has drained significant amounts of bandwidth. People might access and leave on an Olympics feed that will churn a ton of bandwidth. It’s not just the productivity drain; it’s the bandwidth drain as well. There are a lot more Web-based apps these days, and that reduces the ability and performance of other employees using those applications,” Murray told TechNewsWorld.

“There is a productivity angle to this, as well as a bandwidth consumption concern. The way we’ve addressed it is by providing granular policy capabilities that enable people to watch some of it without being draconian and closing it out completely — which we can also do,” Murray explained.

Filtering Streaming Olympics Video

8e6 has added two new Olympics-related filtering categories to the list of more than 100 categories it provides with its Internet filtering appliance. That’s something network managers refer to when crafting and implementing their own particular Internet filtering policies and practices.

“One is for Olympic news, but not streaming media; and then the other is specific to those sites offering streaming media of the Games themselves — say, the NBC site or any derivative site with media signature patterns,” Murray explained.

8e6’s filtering technology will not only block access to sites where content originates — NBC’s own site for streaming video Olympic coverage, for example — but analyzes media signature patterns to monitor and limit or block access to third-party sites that re-distribute coverage from them. “Not just NBC’s site, but any derivative site with media signature patterns that show it links to the parent site. It’s up to the customer whether or not to block it,” Murray elaborated.

Working Outside the Direct Line of Fire

Whereas Internet filtering technology embedded in software or proxy servers can add to network bandwidth demands and result in additional latency and complexity, 8e6’s appliance sits and functions outside the network. The company typically installs two dedicated servers — one for the filtering application and another for reporting — inside customers’ firewalls, Murray explained.

“We’re completely non-invasive. First off, it’s very common for enterprises to have multiple layers of security — at endpoints, gateways, and Internet filtering for monitoring user behavior. [Ours] is a complementary security technology with a very high attach rate.

“Because of our architecture — it’s a pass-by appliance device — we aren’t in the direct line of fire. (Trying to access a prohibited site) results in a blocked page, so we don’t slow down network traffic at all or any other network appliances trying to do other security.”

Evolving Enterprise Filtering Policies

Primary schools — K-12 — form a core part of 8e6’s customer base. Federal and state laws require them to filter and block access to certain types of Internet content and the sites that carry them, adult content being the prime example.

“Enterprises tend to be less draconian; they do more monitoring and see-through reporting,” Murray said. “Enterprises will block adult content and any malware categories — phishing, botnet sites.”

8e6 uses its own proprietary malware detection software to identify and block access to infected sites, preventing them from ever reaching the desktop. “We use a set of automated tools, as well as human verifiers to assess and classify malware sites properly,” he explained.

Enterprises’ Internet filtering policies are continually evolving, and all the streaming video coming out of this year’s Summer Olympics may well lead to changes in policy when it comes to accessing sports sites, Murray believes.

“We’ve done a lot of research with customers on social networking sites, and enterprises tend to block social networking sites outright; at least most enterprises do. That may change going forward. They may block it now but going forward may start to consider it as something they have to provide to employees but ration access.

“Sports sites, as opposed to YouTube, typically aren’t blocked outright, so the Olympics coverage is a new wrinkle. It may result in new policies being created as a result. My guess is that they’ going to block it entirely or limit it, and I think they’ll opt for the latter. One other option is that they may just issue a policy to employees letting them know they’re monitoring it; that’s very common in enterprises.”

The Olympics, Part 2: Gold-Medal Network Performance

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