How to Check Bandwidth Usage Across Your Network

Instant access to the internet and cloud has become a universal expectation for all users, while business operations increasingly depend on the vast amounts of data generated by new technologies like the Internet of Things (IOT). As a result, significant network bandwidth has become a necessity for any and all organizations looking to keep that data flowing.

However, plenty of businesses are still plagued by poor network configurations that lead to bottlenecks and slowdowns, which in turn impact worker productivity and cut into profits. To make insufficient bandwidth a thing of the past, companies should invest in proven bandwidth usage monitoring tools that provide both a granular and a big-picture view of enterprise data usage. Doing so helps managed services providers (MSPs) tailor effective solutions for those enterprises that still struggle with low bandwidth.

What is bandwidth usage?

Bandwidth refers to a network’s capacity to transfer data between devices or the internet within a particular span of time. Higher bandwidth allows data to be transferred at a faster rate (although the term “bandwidth” itself is not a synonym for internet speed). A network with greater bandwidth also allows more devices to connect at once.

To understand how this all works, it helps to imagine the network as a highway, and bandwidth as the number of the lanes. With enough lanes and a reasonable number of cars on the road, traffic can move quickly. But with too many vehicles and too few lanes, everything moves more slowly.

The same thing happens with a network. If there are too many users performing high-data activities, like watching videos or downloading files, your network speed will lag. If you’ve ever attempted to use the internet in a public space, like a coffee shop or library, then you know the connection is generally slower during peak usage time, when many users are trying to get online.

Bandwidth capacity is typically determined by the connection type. Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) internet relies on telephone lines and offers lower bandwidth capabilities, ranging from around 1.5 Mbps to 15 Mbps. Cable internet can run as fast as 50 Mbps, while fiber optic speeds take the cake, clocking in at up to 1,000 Mbps. Of course, these are theoretical calculations, and you should not expect your internet to always (or ever) achieve these maximums.

MSPs can help businesses configure their networks to meet their expected bandwidth needs, as well as in anticipation of future increases in the number of devices that need to get online at once. It’s better to handle configuration as you’re setting up your network, as you may find it more difficult to make changes to your bandwidth once the network is already established.

As a rule of thumb, businesses typically need fairly high bandwidth to accommodate day-to-day operations, although exact usage, of course, varies from company to company. An enterprise may need more bandwidth for any number of reasons, not least the fact that today’s employees use more devices than ever—not just desktop computers, but laptops, smartphones, and tablets that require a connection to the company network.

As mentioned earlier, the specific activities performed by employees on their connected devices factor significantly into bandwidth consumption. Watching videos is a common activity that requires extra capacity, as is the transfer or sharing of files. In fact, popular services like Dropbox deliberately slow down the rate of downloads in order to avoid overwhelming a user’s network.

At the same time, businesses are funneling data into their networks from an unprecedented number of sources, as devices such as surveillance cameras and IoT sensors generate significant amounts of information that are passed along to devices on business networks. Add it all up, and it’s clear how important it is for MSPs to design networks so that bandwidth is allocated by expected need. (Compartmentalization is another tactic MSPs employ to avoid a scenario in which multiple streams of data compete for bandwidth simultaneously.)

On a related note, business owners may have similar questions about how bandwidth affects their company’s website and choice of web hosting service (and vice versa). For the website to function properly, data has to travel freely between the company network, website, and visitors to the site—especially if the website in question includes an e-commerce or customer service functionality.

In these instances, enterprises must be able to predict bandwidth usage based on website user habits—otherwise, they could end up with an underperforming, slow-loading website that drives away visitors, or receive unexpected fees from the host when more bandwidth is required. Small brick-and-mortar businesses may be able to get by on low bandwidth if their website has a small daily audience. But larger businesses and e-commerce brands need to invest in significantly more online bandwidth—especially if they hope to grow their customer base.

Calculating bandwidth requirements

In order to ensure smooth sailing for your company or clients’ IT department, you need to determine the bandwidth requirements of your enterprise’s local area network (LAN) or wide area network (WAN). While servers can be reconfigured more regularly, it’s best to optimize your bandwidth calculations at the start to avoid major overhauls down the line.

There are a couple of steps to calculating your requirements. First, you’ll want to compute the bytes per second (Bps) available to devices in the network. For instance, a gigabit network offers 1 billion bits per second, and with 8 bytes in a bit, you can divide that number by 8 to get 125 million Bps.

1 gigabit network = 1 billions bits per second (bps)

1 bit = 8 bytes

1 billion bits/8 = 125 million bytes per second (Bps) = total network bandwidth 

You may find it easier to express this number in megabytes, which would come out to 125 megabytes per second (Mbps). This amounts to your network’s total bandwidth, although its actual capacity may be slightly lower when it comes to real-world performance.

Second, to understand your network requirements, you also need to know the number of bytes per second that network devices may use, based on factors like applications, downloads, and other data-heavy activities. To get this number, you need to run a test on a typical workplace interface, which will produce a calculation of average Bps. While monitoring bandwidth usage by IP address is possible via your internet service provider (ISP) account, a bandwidth usage monitoring tool will paint a far more accurate picture of your network and users’ demands. Try to capture about 10 seconds of data from multiple workstations (if possible)—that way, you can build a large enough sample size while also making it easy to divide the total (by 10) and produce your average per-second rate.

125 million Bps (total network bandwidth)/ average per-second Bps rate of one device 

= maximum # of devices your network can accommodate

For example: 125 million total Bps / 1,250,000 Bps per device = 100 devices 

Again, it’s important to remember the gap between this theoretical maximum and real-world events: if your calculation shows capacity for 100 interfaces, your business shouldn’t expect to accommodate 100 users. People will inevitably consume more data on busier days, and your team may grow quickly if business is booming.

Depending on the particular needs of your organization, you may need to include multiple devices for each user in the equation, as many people use tablets and phones for work-related activities while in the office. You may want to divide the total bandwidth number into several portions and calculate by allotting each type of device just a portion of the total. If you are working with a gigabit network and want just half your bandwidth dedicated to computers, for example, simply allocate 62.5 Mbps and divide that number by the average per-second use of a computer on the network.

How can I monitor my bandwidth usage? 

Projecting bandwidth usage is important for setting up a network, as described above. But ongoing monitoring of both LANs and any WANs is key to maintaining smooth functioning for any business, so you should know how to check bandwidth usage effectively.

You may be tempted to just add more bandwidth when the network slows down, but this is an expensive solution that ignores underlying issues. Monitoring allows you to head off issues and troubleshoot slowdowns. For instance, if your ISP has a bandwidth cap, automated alerts help you slow down usage before you reach that limit. To implement effective monitoring, you’ll want to choose a tool that gathers and communicates both granular and big-picture network usage information.

It’s possible to monitor bandwidth on individual devices, with each workstation using a basic monitoring tool to keep track of how various applications and functions affect bandwidth usage. These tools are available for download for both Windows and Mac devices. This allows individuals to identify how file transfers or video chats are sapping too much bandwidth, but it doesn’t offer a business an overall understanding of usage across the network.

MSPs can also monitor an enterprises’ network at the router, which will provide a more comprehensive understanding of total usage. This can help you understand if the network has the capacity to add more devices, or if you will soon exceed the bandwidth limit. Check the ISP’s website—the company may offer a monthly readout of bandwidth usage across the network. Of course, the issue with using these parameters is that they don’t offer enough granularity, limiting your troubleshooting efforts.

For MSPs working with enterprises of any size, the most effective choice is a bandwidth usage monitoring tool that provides both an overview and specific device information, like the free Realtime Bandwidth Monitor from SolarWinds MSP. This tool allows you to easily monitor multiple interfaces on your network, at whatever level of detail you require. You can see how much bandwidth is in use, watch and record traffic patterns, and even set alert thresholds. This type of monitoring tool is the simplest way to understand whether your load-balancing is configured correctly and to help catch any problems that could be slowing down the network.

How does low bandwidth impact a business? 

If its network is experiencing low bandwidth, a business will likely run into challenges that may interrupt workflow and cut into the bottom line.

On the customer or client side, individuals attempting to navigate a website won’t wait if service is slow. What’s more, effective customer service might not be possible, client communication may bottom out as video conferencing lags or skips, and slow payment processing could directly impact revenue.

Internally, business operations may drag and even come to a halt. Cloud-based apps, like Office 365 or G Suite, may not function smoothly if internet bandwidth usage is high, leading to employee frustration. File sharing is crucial to many aspects of business, but this is a major data drag and may not be possible with a low bandwidth network. Surveillance or security technology may not operate as it’s supposed to, putting the business at risk. And if an enterprise consistently experiences network issues, leadership can forget about trying to scale operations until they have the issues figured out.

Bottom line? Low bandwidth will cost the business—literally. Major interruptions can mean a direct hit on any given workday, but even minor slowdowns impact productivity and profitability over time and can drive a decrease in employee morale.

How do I fix low bandwidth? 

It can be difficult to figure out what is causing low bandwidth, and time consuming to overhaul business operations while looking for a solution. If you hope to fix low bandwidth, your first step is to set up a detailed network monitoring tool, as mentioned above. Once you have more information about what’s taking up bandwidth, it will be easier to see whether the problem calls for changes at the device or network level.

Although the problem typically is not attributable to individual workstations, these can nonetheless be configured to be more efficient. Businesses can suggest the use of certain web browsers or require updated browsers. They may also choose to block sites that stream music or videos, as these can slow things down across the network. MSPs can provide data-saving unified software updates rather than forcing each computer to download the update separately. That said, updates shouldn’t be neglected, as out-of-date computers tend to have more malware or viruses, which run in the background and can easily eat up bandwidth.

At a broader level, enterprises may need to examine their overall network practices and services. Talk to the ISP about whether the business is on the correct plan. Is there a data cap? Does the ISP tend to “throttle” websites that require a lot of bandwidth, like video-streaming sites? It may be time to pay for updated and more comprehensive service. In addition, the business may want to make it standard protocol to send data and traffic to a cloud service provider in order to relieve the impact on internal networks.

As you design the network, remember to plan for solutions—for instance, multiprotocol label-switching networks can prioritize key functions, like video conferencing. MSPs should work to provide a quality of service architecture that optimizes bandwidth allocation across both LAN and WAN environments.

Another option is to update old hardware, including routers, Ethernet cables, and modems. Ethernet connections are typically faster than Wi-Fi connections, and for Wi-Fi, make sure you aren’t keeping too many routers on one channel. MSPs can help enterprises place wireless routers in a way that avoids slowdowns or dead zones due to any obstacles.

During the process, keep in mind that bottlenecks in business bandwidth usually relate not to the LAN environment but issues within the WAN. The demands on the WAN are increasing due to bandwidth-intensive applications like cloud apps and the IoT. As more and more local networks connect, bandwidth optimization can become more difficult. It may take specific WAN optimization tools to reduce the traffic across these networks and free up bandwidth.

Low bandwidth is a common problem that businesses may call on MSPs to fix. Network bandwidth usage monitoring tools go a long way in helping IT professionals identify the problem, propose solutions, and configure networks to run without slowdowns or interruptions, even as an enterprise changes and grows.

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