Tablets are definitely the wave of the future in end-user computing, and that trend is gathering strength faster than expected. Forrester Research, for instance, has increased its estimates of tablet market growth in its latest report on the subject. And while markets do not always meet expectations, and some reports confuse tablet computers like the iPad and Android tablets with single-purpose e-book readers like the Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble Nook, or conflate Android smartphone with tablet sales, no one questions that this trend is huge and growing.
Increasing numbers of these tablets are showing up in offices and other public spaces, and whether they are used for business or purely as personal devices in the office, that has implications for network traffic.
Increasing Network Demand
First, tablets much more than Windows or Macintosh laptops or smartphones, are media consumers. Unlike Macs and Windows machines, which are designed basically to run stand-alone applications with some Internet connectivity, consumer tablets are creatures of the cloud, designed more for consumption of video, graphics, animation, and similar large-file media, mostly from the Web. And many tablet apps require frequent if not constant connectivity, whether that is to download video, connect to online games or social media such as Twitter or Facebook, or to display business charts and data from an SaaS provider.
So the first implication of the shift from laptops to tablets is a steady growth in network traffic, and given the economics and limited bandwidth available on cellular services, an increasing amount of that will be over WiFi. And when those are over the network in your office or retail outlet, then you need to be prepared with a network sized to support that increased demand.
Different Load Characteristics
Second, the kind of traffic is different. Servers generally create very few connections and maintain them for a long time. Desktop and laptop computer users also tend to maintain a few connections – for instance to an e-mail service, social media sites like Facebook or Twitter, and business services for fairly long periods, often leaving them running in background while they do offline tasks. Tablet users, however, tend to jump around. Partly because most tablets today are not multitasking systems and most applications require network connections, users tend to jump from one site to another constantly. This is a very different use pattern that can create network problems.
Third tablets are very portable and users tend to use them while moving from one place to another, whereas laptop users tend to work in one place. As tablet use grows it will become common to see employees walking through the office while using their tablets. That means your network will be facing many more handoffs between nodes that it will need to handle those gracefully.
It also means that large and sometimes unexpected changes in network demand, for instance as a group of tablet users enter your restaurant or office together, will become common. This means that your network needs strong surge capacity.
Also, tablet users will be much more sensitive to network performance than laptop users. On a laptop, where many applications are self-contained, users may often not really notice a network slowdown and can remain productive during a temporary outage. Tablet users – not so much!
Network and file security will also be challenged. Tablets and smartphones both can be conduits for malware and other forms of computer crime. Experience is showing that mobile workers, who are often more distracted than laptop users, are more likely to click on a suspicious e-mail download. The result in some cases has been a security breach as medical records, for instance, are grabbed through a doctor's smartphone. Since defending against voluntary, accidental malware downloads by legitimate users is very difficult to defend against this means that your network will need a new kind of firewall – one that audits outgoing traffic to intercept possible security breaches rather than just monitoring incoming traffic for security issues.
And of course while tablets have much less internal “guts” than laptops (at least for now), users still can download business files and carry them out of the building to work on at home. And if laptops are vulnerable to theft – and they certainly are – tablets are much more so, and their popularity makes them potential targets. And while no malware has been reported so far for iOS and Android, the huge growth in devices using these operating systems makes that only a matter of time.
Action Item: The good news is that IT has time to plan. All of these issues require careful thought, and networking professionals need to take them seriously. If they are ignored, some day IT may find itself in the middle of a crisis when tablets crash the network.