March Madness may be fun for college basketball fans, but it can be a nightmare for IT departments trying to keep their networks running normally.
The annual NCAA Men's basketball championship tournament creates an uproar of excitement. People around the country set up brackets, create office pools and clamor for the games that run from the second week in March through the first week of April.
What causes mayhem for IT departments within small and large enterprises alike is that many of the games are played during the day and during the work week.
That means instead of working on spreadsheets or returning important emails, workers are watching streaming video of the games when their bosses aren't looking. They're online checking their brackets and they're trash talking their friends' favorite teams on social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and Google+.
Not only is this a huge drain on corporate networks, it's also a huge productivity drain.
"It's like the perfect storm of network problems," said Zeus Kerravala, an analyst with ZK Research. "The streaming video is bandwidth intensive, the games have an enormous following, they're on during the work day and they're Web delivered so it's hard for IT to block."
A telephone survey of 500 IT professionals last month showed that 42% said March Madness has affected their networks in previous years. Of those affected, 37% said their networks suffered a slow down during March Madness, while 34% said it "essentially shut down their networks."
The survey, conducted by Braun Research and sponsored by Modis, an IT staffing company, showed that 27% of IT professionals trust employees to be honest and not visit sports sites while at work. However, 42% said they monitor workers who are trying to access streaming video sites.
Rick Endres, president of The Washington Network Inc., an outsourced IT and telecommunications company based in Alexandria, Va., said his company focuses on bandwidth "shaping" and monitoring for its corporate clients.
"You prioritize voice because a lot of computer networks have telephones running on them," said Endres said. "Then you prioritize email and you slow down recreational viewing ... We don't recommend blocking [sites] because that upsets people. We use shaping so we slow it down by user or by site."
He added the bandwidth issues are not only about employees trying to watch big games during work. It's also employees' going on social sites to talk about the games and see how they're friends are doing with their pools or brackets.
"Facebook and Twitter usage jump substantially during March Madness," Endres said. "That's the thing these days is the social media aspect of this. Everyone wants to not just watch but to comment on it, too ... We all think we're pretty good multi-taskers, but all of these things are distractions and they're far more profound than we would believe."
Kerravala said he doesn't recommend restricting access to sports and social sites during March Madness. That step might drive some workers to simply not come to work at all.
"It's big enough that I actually think people would leave the office for the day and watch it in bars," he noted. "Companies should set up March Madness TV stations in the office. Maybe put a policy in place of an hour of time to go watch it so people don't have to sneak it. Then it can be monitored."
If IT tries to block March Madness, users will find a way to work around the block. Managers need to find a way to work around their employees' desire to keep up with March Madness while at work.
Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld.
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