The technology acts as a compromise between banning students and employees from bandwidth-hogging Web sites such as music file-swapping service Napster--moves that have spurred freedom-of-speech complaints--and giving people free rein to drain sorely needed bandwidth.
The move comes as businesses and universities are installing increasingly complex applications to run operations and transactions online. Such bandwidth demands force companies to upgrade indefinitely--an expensive prospect--or to find more efficient ways to manage their traffic.
"If we could run a full T1 to every one of our 80 locations, we would. But it is much more cost effective to make the bandwidth you have more effective," said Mike Misterek, supervisor of LAN services for Pepsi Cola General Bottlers, which is a subsidiary of Pepsico and has 2,500 employees. "Bandwidth is extremely expensive."
To address the problem, companies including Pepsi Cola General Bottlers, Intel, Sony, Fujitsu, EarthLink and Hewlett-Packard, as well as hundreds of schools, are turning to technology that classifies Internet traffic and gives certain applications higher priority.
The technology, such as Packeteer's PacketShaper and Check Point Software Technologies' FloodGate, does not block employees from Web sites; rather, it slows access to low-priority applications. This differs from the use of firewalls, which let companies restrict employee access to specific sites and applications entirely.
Stanford University's assistant director of networking, Jay Kohn, said after the Napster appellate court decision earlier this week that the technology has allowed the school to give academic Internet use higher priority than entertainment and gaming.
"If two packets are fighting it out to get off campus, the Napster packet will go second, and the other packet will go first," Kohn said. So-called packets carry information, whether it be music, data or otherwise, along networks to a final destination.
High schools, which typically have less funding available for networking needs, have begun using the technology as an alternative to expensive upgrades.
"We couldn't afford to keep adding bandwidth with no end in sight, so we had to try to figure out something else to do. Now the teachers are happy because they can access all the sites they need," said Steven Eisenberg, director of technology at Episcopal High School in Houston. "Before, they couldn't get to any of their sites during the day because our two T1 lines were clogged with students sharing and downloading music."
Bandwidth limitations first became an issue on many college campuses with the growing popularity of Napster in 1999. Thousands of students were downloading and trading MP3 files, overloading the bandwidth capacity at many universities.
The problem has only worsened, school officials say, as students have gravitated to other peer-to-peer programs including Gnutella and iMesh. While several schools have banned these Web sites, others have opted to look at alternatives.
Businesses, too, have had to limit personal employee uses of bandwidth to save room for critical applications that track sales and customer orders.
"We use it actually to guarantee performance for our applications that we consider mission critical, such as PeopleSoft, and in-house applications that transfer sales and route data to our truck drivers," said Misterek, of Pepsi Cola General Bottlers. "Basic Web browsing is given less priority; same with applications like Real Audio, Windows Media, certain FTP sites."
The PacketShaper lets information technology administrators identify which applications are using the most bandwidth, and then set rules and guidelines.
"We allow you as an IT administrator to say these packets or this application is more important so it should go through first," said Jeff Barker, director of product marketing at Cupertino, Calif.-based Packeteer. "Most companies don't mind employees using the network to look at sports scores or buy flowers, but they don't want it to impact business."