Netflix factor has university networks creaking under streaming video strain

With the return of students to the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth's campus in the fall, the university's network will be required to cope with a huge increase in demand - and the major culprit, according to network systems manager Richard Pacheco, is Netflix.

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Even though the school built out its bandwidth capacity recently, Pacheco says last fall saw a massive spike in the amount of data demanded by online video streaming.

"We believe that a lot of it was due to the fact that Netflix kind of changed their pricing model. A lot of students went to streaming-only," he says, adding that between 7 p.m. and 2 a.m., the university's available bandwidth was eaten up completely by Netflix traffic.

While the institution - which has 4,500 residential students - usually sees a minor increase in overall traffic from year to year, the Netflix factor drove last year's usage up to fully 50% higher than the one before.

Another cross to bear for the campus network is the smartphone, Pacheco says.

"What we're seeing in the past year or so is a proliferation of mobile devices. Everyone's showing up with a smartphone, a tablet, a laptop and some people even bring desktops," he says. "Over the past year, we tracked all our devices - we require students to register every device - and we've seen a ratio of more than 2:1 in devices per student."

As a consequence, UMass - Dartmouth adopted an Exinda traffic shaping appliance to help ensure uptime and availability for both student entertainment and academic purposes. The previous tool, which used complicated command line interfaces instead of GUIs, was proving ineffective, and had even caused some network problems itself.

The Exinda 8760, which Pacheco says simply acts as a filter and traffic shaper sitting between the network and the Internet, handles 2.5Gbps of throughput and retails for $82,900.

One improvement the school has made, says Pacheco, is that the dorm network can be heavily prioritized at night, while the academic buildings receive the lion's share of the bandwidth during the day.

Additionally, every dorm IP address is capped at 3Mbps, to ensure that a few heavy users don't impinge on the user experience for everyone else.

In the future, Pacheco says, the school's partnership with Rhode Island-based non-profit OSHEAN will see a direct fiber connection come to campus - greatly boosting the amount of available bandwidth.

Even now, however, positive feedback from the student body seems to indicate that Pacheco and his team are on the right track.

"We stayed in touch with a handful of students [after making the changes] to make sure that ... things are working better," he says.

Email Jon Gold at jgold@nww.com and follow him on Twitter at @NWWJonGold.

Read more about infrastructure management in Network World's Infrastructure Management section.

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