Broadband is readily available in South Africa and lowered pricing and competitive packages and bundles designed to attract as many customers as possible - both consumers and businesses - are the order of the day.
However, despite recent cost cuts, bandwidth remains expensive in South African, making it an imperative to manage usage.
Many ISPs do not offer bandwidth management tools or a service that highlights anomalies with bandwidth usage. Customers thus often receive an unexpectedly high bill that can sour the convenience of having access to the Internet, and often the ISP is blamed for the high usage.
Says Danie Fourie, director at XDSL, an Internet Solution Provider (ISP) catering to the needs of business and consumers: "Viruses and abuse of bandwidth by employees are the main culprits for unexpected high bills within a business environment. We are increasingly receiving reports and feedback from our customers regarding excessive use of bandwidth that cannot be accounted for. These companies often assume the fault lies with the ISP's calculation of bandwidth usage or billing. To provide greater clarity - and protection from misuse of bandwidth - ISP's should offer their clients the option of firewall and/or virtual private network (VPN) technology."
Fourie provides a typical example of this scenario. "A customer complained about their bandwidth usage and had ruled out unauthorised use as they were using XDSL's port-locking function, ensuring the ADSL account was only used at the physical address of the customer. Upon investigation, XDSL, through realtime monitoring of the bandwidth, established that an employee was scheduling multimedia downloads over the weekends, substantially pushing up the customer's bandwidth usage.
The culprit was downloading up to 10 Gigabytes over a weekend with content including music and movies."
He notes that the increasing number of Websites that offer downloads of music, videos and gaming have had a ripple effect on the amount of bandwidth that companies are consuming. "The download agent BitTorrent is exacerbating this," he says. "It allows users to schedule downloads and also offers stability, ensuring that if a connection is temporarily dropped the download is resumed from where it stopped. There are a number of multimedia devices that include the BitTorrent download agent, further perpetuating the abuse of bandwidth by employees."
In addition to bandwidth abuse, viruses also consume loads of bandwidth.
A virus could send out files to the e-mail addresses kept on a PC, significantly affecting bandwidth. A business might react by employing a specialist security consultant who would probably recommend that a proxy server be installed. This costs money and there is no guarantee that the proxy server will detect SMTP/e-mail, Bit Torrent and virus traffic.
Rather, it measures HTTP traffic which relates to Web-browsing. In addition, there are far too many programs that bypass a proxy server, making it difficult to establish how and where the bandwidth is being used.
XDSL's firewall and VPN value-added service provides its users with the ability to view SMTP traffic and creates secure connections for inter-branches and mobile workers that need to communicate with the local server. Firewalls can also be programmed to prevent access to certain sites.
In so doing, this service greatly assists to prevent the misuse of bandwidth.
Fourie adds: "Businesses, often SMEs, do not know how to monitor and manage bandwidth, nor do they know what signs to look for. In addition, they do not have the necessary skills and resources to monitor and track usage. ISPs can leverage their value-adds by offering additional services such as VPNs and firewalls, creating a means for them to easily monitor their bandwidth usage and catch the culprits."
Applications too can play havoc. Microsoft Windows updates, for example, use a lot of bandwidth and numerous individuals on a single network could be downloading up to 1,5 Gigabytes per update, seriously impacting bandwidth usage. With XDSL's bandwidth management solution, this type of download can be 'cached', minimising the number of downloads of the same update.
Currently, XDSL is able to assist its customers by monitoring the bandwidth usage in realtime. This assists if the problem is historic as it is usually picked up after several months where the account has steadily increased.
However, XDSL has taken cognisance of the requirement for proactive bandwidth management and is now developing a service that will be available in 2008 which allows users to monitor and manage their own bandwidth on a daily basis, providing them with up to date usage information and highlighting trends and anomalies.
The service makes use of firewall technology to measure packets, estimating usage per day and per month, and allowing users to track anomalies. The service will allow businesses to identify the 'root' of the problem, ensuring the culprits are not allowed to abuse bandwidth for months before it is detected.
Businesses need to understand that as the use of broadband increases, so too do the threats. Simply downloading a programme from the Internet can open a host of vulnerabilities as a port could be open for hackers to find and hack the password.
XDSL offers its clients the option of a VPN for R250,00 exclusive of VAT per month which includes a firewall, delivering low-cost high-speed lines for branch inter-connectivity and secure mobile access. The firewall alone is available for R132,00 per month, exclusive of VAT.