Push Technology may have become a bandwidth glutton bogging down corporate networks and even the Internet itself, but IS managers, vendors, and service providers are starting to push back.
Products from companies such as Australian-based Sorento, Pointcast and BackWeb that offer automated, personalised desktop delivery of everything from stock figures to news of the Mars Pathfinder are gaining popularity. And the release of Netscape Communicator and Microsoft Internet Explorer 4.0, both of which include broadcast components, will bring the technology into mainstream corporate networks.
At the heart of the problem is the "leave the surfing to us" pitch that makes the products so attractive. Employees receive news flashes on topics they would never seek out themselves, IS managers say. Although most push software contains polite agent technology, which only allows server downloads during idle online time, the combined news feeds of an office full of passive subscribers can seriously hamper network performance.
Push products also generate quite a bit of traffic on the Internet at large, because they automatically poll different sites. Concerns over the impact on the Internet's backbone is giving rise to new bandwidth-restricting products and technology such as IP multicasting.
Right now, options to control push traffic are limited and not particularly attractive. Administrators can accept sluggish performance, throw more bandwidth at the problem, or become "push police".
"We've got a Pointcast news feed, and it's a nightmare," said Gary Regan, engineering man-ager at MacNica. "I thought of limiting use to just the lunch hour, but then everyone's scrambling for the same window, and it's still too congested."
Regan is not alone. Many system administrators are restricting or discouraging use of the technology.
But draconian measures won't work in every office. Not only is banning the use of a popular product such as Pointcast or Sorento likely to ruin an administrator's chance at employee of the month, but some of the data being broadcast may be critical to day-to-day operations.
The problem is giving rise to a new class of "bandwidth throttlers".
Packeteer last month announced its PushBack software for setting push traffic priorities and relegating push to excess bandwidth. Cisco offers similar technology, and analysts expect the mar-ket for such products to be crowded by the end of the year.
Pat Scanlan, CEO of Australian-based Sorento, told ARN that companies not addressing the issue were virtually "committing suicide".
"Sorento uses standard Internet protocols, not proprietary protocols."
In a corporate LAN environment with Internet access, Sorento uses the server's proxy ports, which keeps LAN congestion to a minimum.
By letting managers crank bandwidth up and down for certain channels, software such as Packeteer's can ease congestion at the network level too.
But push is not just an intranet problem. The constant trolling on the Web by automatic agents is also adding to overall Internet congestion.
"Push technology perturbs the model of the Internet. It's not just users irregularly clicking through an idle thought process. It's automated software that makes many requests, closely spaced together. It drastically changes the Web's performance profile," said Eugene Shklar, vice president of marketing for Keynote Systems, a consultancy that tracks Web performance.
MCI is preparing for the added stress on Internet backbones by including it in long-term planning, according to Robert Hagens, director of Internet engineering with MCI. The burden of pushed traffic is also a major contributor to the momentum behind IP multi-casting, a highly efficient method of delivering batches of data packets.
Currently being hammered out by 70 service providers and hardware, software, and satellite vendors worldwide, IP multicasting prevents packets from duplicating their efforts as they travel across the Net. Under the currently prevalent unicasting method, two identical packets of data are sent from the source server and traverse the Internet until they hit two desktops. By contrast, multicasting lets one packet of data travel the network until it reaches a split-off backbone as close to the two recipients as possible. It then duplicates itself at the last minute and finishes the trip to the requesting user. The net result: a big reduction in wasted traffic.
BackWeb plans to support IP multicasting in the next version of its server, said Julie Martin, director of product marketing at the company's headquarters. Multicasting is still years away from becoming a practical solution. Its success depends on widespread adoption by push companies, ISPs, and users.
In the meantime, IS managers can take heart from the poor quarterly results announced by several push vendors. Fierce competition means that a product will need more than a nifty GUI to distinguish itself, and the responsible use of network bandwidth may emerge as a powerful differentiator in the push technology market.
Pick your poison
Push technology can be grouped into five categories, ranging from the helpful, to slightly intrusive to definitely pushy.
(1) Notification. A user requests that information be sent automatically through a medium of choice at specified intervals.
(2) Profile. Using a user preference profile, a push service monitors sources, looks for matches, and forwards the information.
(3) Automated pull. Similar to profile, but whole Web pages are often sent based on the user's preference configuration.
(4) Automated push. A user subscribes to a service such as one which uses Web polling software to send periodic requests for information. Broadcasts are often transmitted during a live Web connection.
(5) Channel-changer. A user's desktop includes content channels (sports, financial, etc) that constantly broadcast.