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How to Determine Your Network Bandwidth Needs

By: Tom Banta on August 27, 2019

Bandwidth is a crucial component of network connectivity. When an organization is building its network infrastructure, it needs to make an accurate determination of how much bandwidth it will need to provision to strike a balance between performance and cost. Failing to identify the right level of bandwidth can result in frustrated employees and customers at one extreme and revenue-eating costs at the other.

What is Network Bandwidth?

Bandwidth is often used interchangeably with network speed. While it does have an impact on network performance, it isn’t actually a measure of how quickly data moves through a network (which is measured by latency). What bandwidth does determine is how much data can move through a network connection. Much like a larger water pipe allows more water to travel through it, the greater the bandwidth, the more data can be transmitted over a fixed period of time (usually measured over one second).

Bandwidth is only one factor in network performance. The distance data must travel can greatly impact response times, especially if data packets must travel across the country and back. The throughput of every device in the network is also important. Throughput measures the amount of data that can be processed at any one time. All of these factors interact with one another and are rarely uniform across an entire network infrastructure. Data may have to travel over multiple connections of variable bandwidth and through multiple devices with different throughputs, all of which adds to the time it takes for data to traverse the distance and increases latency.

How is Network Bandwidth Measured?

Early network connections could only transmit a few bits of data per second, but today’s connections are measured in megabits per second (Mbps) or gigabits per second (Gbps). It’s important to recognize that “bits” are not the same as “bytes.” A bit measures the speed at which data is transferred, while a byte measures data storage. Each byte (abbreviated “B”) contains eight bits (abbreviated “b”).

This distinction is important when determining bandwidth needs. If a network needs to be able to handle frequent customer downloads, for instance, the network needs to have enough bandwidth to handle the transfer of that data in terms of bits, not bytes. In order to transfer a 50 megabyte file in one second, the network needs a bandwidth capacity of 400 Mbps because there are 400 megabits in 50 megabytes.

Determining Your Data Network Bandwidth Needs

Provisioning bandwidth from any service provider involves estimating how much network usage a business is expected to need over a period of time. Bandwidth is a limited resource, although it gradually increases every year as telecom providers expand their infrastructure. If a company doesn’t purchase enough bandwidth from their provider, their services can grind to a halt when experiencing high external traffic or internal usage. That’s because the data flowing to and from the network is greater than the amount connections holding that network together can handle at one time. Insufficient bandwidth causes a classic bottleneck problem. However, if a company provisions too much bandwidth, much of that capacity will go to waste. While the network will perform well, it will do so at a potentially ruinous cost to the bottom line.

Much like Goldilocks tasting porridge, the trick is to find a bandwidth capacity that’s “just right” for the organization’s needs. This could be a complicated question if it’s trying to accommodate both customer and employee needs. While customers accessing services will generally be more impacted by their network bandwidth capacity, if a company lacks the bandwidth to upload data or content quickly, it could slow those services significantly.

To determine bandwidth needs, the first place to start is by looking at how many people are expected to be using internet services at the same time. This could easily include every employee in an organization, especially if they have multiple devices that could be used to access the internet. It could also include more than employees, especially in the case of a retail location that offers WiFi access to customers.

Types of Bandwidth Usage

Not all network bandwidth consumption is the same. Someone browsing the internet may only take up about 1 Mbps, but someone streaming high-resolution 4K video could eat up 25 Mbps. In addition to identifying how many people will be using bandwidth, companies also need to consider how they will be using it. Some network providers provide worksheets that allow companies to calculate a rough estimate of their bandwidth requirements based on their usage needs. A provider’s actual bandwidth levels might not always match their advertised levels, however, so it’s important to monitor performance with a network bandwidth test once a solution is in place. It might be necessary to purchase more bandwidth than would appear to be needed to account for the provider’s overburdened network.

Businesses that handle most of their work over web browsers and don’t make heavy use of cloud computing services may not need high network bandwidth, but a company that uses a lot of development or multimedia tools could suffer severe productivity losses if it doesn’t have enough bandwidth. They should also consider how their bandwidth needs might change in the future. If they expect to grow quickly or offer new services, they should be prepared to provision additional bandwidth when the time comes.

Evaluating network bandwidth can be an important decision for a company. Failing to provision enough capacity can create major inefficiencies and declines in productivity. On the other hand, spending too much on bandwidth is often wasteful, preventing a company from capitalizing on the improved productivity that a high bandwidth connection can provide. By carefully evaluating networking and computing needs, it’s possible to arrive at a reasonable estimate of how much bandwidth is “just right.”

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