New iPad could cause corporate network crunch

The new Apple iPad, which sports a higher-resolution screen, a 1080p HD camera and LTE network capability, will likely entice millions of buyers—but it could bog down corporate networks and give IT managers headaches.

Here’s a scenario that could give network managers pause: iPad owners looking to avoid downloading high-definition videos or movies over LTE to avoid steep data costs may instead do so over Wi-Fi at work. And what happens when those who buy Wi-Fi-only versions of the iPad, which starts at $499 for a 16GB model, all decide to download app updates at the same time?

The Wi-Fi download burden on corporate networks could be severe, experts said. That’s especially true for a company’s branch office, where perhaps 20 to 100 workers are sharing the capacity of a typical T-1 line functioning at 1.544Mbps, experts said.

Even a few users simultaneously downloading apps and videos on their new iPads could eat up bandwidth capacity in a smaller office, delaying other vital data transmissions, said Ed O’Connell, senior product manager for WAN optimization products at Blue Coat Systems.

O’Connell has the numbers to back up his concern.

“In a 100-person office, if just 20 percent are using the new iPad, you are talking about a tremendous amount of network traffic,” he said, arguing that the iPad’s beefed-up specs—2048-by-1536-pixel display, A5X processor, 5-megapixel rear-facing camera and 1080p HD video recording capabilities—could entice more enterprise users.

“With all those features, what will happen is that a lot of businesses will find the new iPad a lot more acceptable as a tablet device than in the past, and that means a tremendous amount of added network traffic,” O’Connell said.

Apple said 15.4 million iPad 2s were sold in the fourth quarter of 2011, more than any of the computers sold by any single PC maker. Given the iPad 2’s success, one market analysis firm, eMarketer, said the new version will nearly double the iPad’s share of people using the Internet in the U.S. from 2011 to 2013. eMarketer also predicted that the 28 million iPad users in 2011 will nearly double to 54 million in 2013.

Given that many people use iTunes to get iPad apps, O’Connell said, iTunes updates can add to network congestion. There were four updates to iTunes in April 2011 alone, with two of them weighing in at 75MB (and version 10.4.1 topped out at 90.2MB). If you have numerous employees getting updates of that size at about the same time, “that’s a sizable amount of network traffic,” he said.

He estimated that downloads of that size done by 10 to 20 people at the same time could use the entire capacity of a T-1 line for as long as three minutes. While that might not sound like a lot of network congestion, some companies might find it unacceptable.

O’Connell also noted that many apps get constant updates, making network demands unpredictable. The American Airlines and Delta travel apps he uses are updated completely, perhaps every two months. Those updates can run from 13MB to 20MB in size—and Wi-Fi is often required for large updates.

Blue Coat hasn’t measured the impact of video used by tablets and smartphones in typical workplaces. But uploading videos to YouTube and other sites can crowd out other network traffic.

About 51 percent of today’s Internet traffic is video, either streaming or videoconferencing, he said, although in the workplace that percentage is closer to 20 percent or 25 percent. “People have talked about video over networks for a long time, but now it’s just used more often for videoconferencing and more,” O’Connell said.

“The new iPad is made for video and we expect to see a lot more personal videoconferencing and creation of videos,” he said. As camera size has increased, the data problem has grown, too. He noted that with the iPhone 3GS, the camera was 3 megapixels, taking a still photo that was 1.2 MB in size, while the iPhone 4S has an 8-megapixel camera, creating a still image file size of 2.7 MB. The rear-facing camera in the new iPad is 5 megapixels, compared to less than 1 megapixel in the iPad 2. (Apple never detailed the megapixels in iPad 2’s rear-facing camera, just stating it as 720p, which equates to below 1 megapixel.)

“That’s a big jump in the new iPad’s rear camera, and will cause the most [network] damage,” O’Connell said.

Blue Coat sells WAN optimization software, competing mainly with Riverbed and Cisco, and also sells a secure Web gateway, competing with Websense, Cisco and McAfee.

Experiences with Blue Coat’s Fortune 500 customers have taught it that some companies are only just beginning to feel the network traffic pinch caused by smartphones and tablets. One manufacturer in Ohio working with Blue Coat has 2,500 workers, but has built out its Wi-Fi network to handle only 10 percent of that amount, serving what are considered its knowledge workers, he said.

In recent years, the remaining workers have begun showing up with smartphones and tablets expecting wireless connections for various needs, including Web browsing. “Suddenly, the manufacturer has a much bigger problem when the network was designed for just 250 workers,” O’Connell said.

A single iPhone 4S streaming high quality video can soak up 500Kbps, he noted. “In a single branch office, that alone can choke more than half of the available bandwidth in a T-1 line,” he said.

O’Connell’s colleague, Steve Schick, senior director of corporate marketing at Blue Coat, said the new iPad could be a bigger network threat than previous mobile devices brought in by employees. IT shops everywhere are facing the bring-your-own-device (BYOD) issue already. IT officials from a variety of companies discussed the trend at the CITE conference this week.

“Bringing your own device to work is becoming an emotional thing,” Schick said. “Everybody across the board loves these devices for watching video or reading something, which is more pleasurable or easier to do than on a laptop or desktop. Even top execs bring them in, as well as the receptionist.”

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