- The Washington Times - Monday, June 18, 2012

That iPhone you bring to work to keep busy at the office could be setting up your company for big trouble.

Forget wasting company time with personal calls and Facebook updates, or damaging the firm’s online reputation with negative comments on Twitter.

A new problem with the explosion of mobile high-tech devices has popped up, and many workplaces aren’t prepared for it. As more employees bring their personal smartphones, tablets and laptops to work, too many devices are connecting to the office’s wireless Internet system and overloading the network.

In fact, personal-device overload has emerged as a leading cause of corporate network crashes, said Aaron Brooks, innovation manager at Softchoice, an information technology solutions and service provider, and a surge that coincides with recent disruptions at companies such as Amazon, Microsoft and Yahoo.

“It’s creating an interesting challenge for businesses,” said Mr. Brooks, whose firm recently released a study pointing out the weaknesses in network infrastructures across corporate America. “This puts a lot of stress on the network.”

This problem of outages arises as more and more companies try to keep up with technology trends that are revolutionizing the workplace. They are encouraging employees to “bring your own device” to work, and to consider their tablets, smartphones and other devices as 24/7 extensions of their regular workday routines.

The strategy, known as “BYOD,” is growing in popularity because many bosses see it as a way to increase productivity and efficiency without increasing costs.

“It’s more personal,” Mr. Brooks said. “There’s an inherent want [among employees] to use the device that I picked because it’s mine and I own it.”

The traditional workplace with a standard-issue, one-brand-fits-all desktop computer in each cubicle just isn’t cutting it anymore, Mr. Brooks said.

“We shouldn’t be coming to work and having a lesser experience than we would at home,” he said.

Embracing with reservations

Analysts say top companies are embracing BYOD - with reservations. Allowing workers to use their personal devices is cheaper, more flexible and often preferred by the workers themselves. Upgrading with each technology breakthrough is typically far easier and far more decentralized under BYOD than the traditional top-down model.

But flexibility for the employee can mean loss of control and oversight for the employer, beyond the technical strain that the flood of personal devices can put on corporate systems. Who owns the work data stored in your iPhone, control of unacceptable or obscene material, and the fate of company data and processes on personal devices when an employee leaves or is terminated - all have to be worked out, PCWorld columnist Tony Bradley noted recently.

“BYOD isn’t all wine and roses,” Mr. Bradley wrote. “By embracing BYOD, organizations lose much of the control over the IT hardware and how it is used.”

On the positive side, however, employees can get more done with better technology, said Softchoice spokesman Eric Gardiner.

“Oftentimes, the technology you use at home is far more powerful and more current than the tech you use in the workplace,” he said.

So this trend toward employees using their own devices is growing in offices across the country.

“It’s not just that I’m bringing my iPhone to work,” Mr. Gardiner said. “It’s that I’m bringing my iPhone, my iPad and my laptop. Think about the spike in network traffic. It’s substantial.”

Taking a toll

The problem is that these additional devices are taking a toll on workplace networks that companies aren’t prepared to handle.

Network outages are more common than many Internet users realize, even among the industry’s best-known brands, said Chris Dornfeld, co-founder of DownRightNow.com. His company monitors 16 top tech websites, such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Skype, Netflix and YouTube, and notifies users of all disruptions.

“I would say every day at least one of the sites we monitor has a significant outage,” Mr. Dornfeld said.

Many of these companies experience growing pains because they are not ready for traffic spikes that can come from the instant popularity of a new social network or a viral video, he said.

“When [companies] are still young, they often experience very rapid growth in audience,” Mr. Dornfeld said. “So they must scramble to keep up with that demand.”

These problems often occur when companies don’t maintain their websites properly, he said.

Even top tech sites aren’t immune to network outages. Last year, Amazon suffered a network outage in its Northern Virginia data center that affected a number of popular websites that use its cloud services, including such heavy-traffic clients as Foursquare, Reddit, Netflix and Instagram, which all went offline for hours.

“They had their own outage and that sort of had a domino effect on these other companies that also fell over because they were relying on Amazon,” Mr. Dornfeld said.

Verizon, which bills itself as the nation’s “most reliable network,” had three outages in December alone.

Microsoft also experienced an outage last year that shut down Office 365, Hotmail, SkyDrive and Windows Live.

This is happening, Mr. Brooks said, because companies are so focused on network security that they neglect to install the necessary upgrades to keep the system running smoothly.

“It’s easy to neglect something that you think is working,” Mr. Brooks said. “In a house, the foundation is the most important thing, and probably also the least maintained. The foundational elements are always the least looked at. When you look at network infrastructure, there is no difference.”

The only way to completely solve this problem is for companies to do some planning and upgrade their networks before a major disaster like this happens, Mr. Brooks said.

“The real solution is you really need to know where you are with your network and decide where you’re going,” he said.

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