Engineering Firm Saves Cash with WAN Optimization

By Ericka Chickowski Print this article Print

How one IT department managed to significantly improve the productivity of its dispersed workforce with wide area network optimization.

In today's increasingly dispersed corporate environments, linking geographically separated employees is no easy task. Tools such as videoconferencing applications, Web collaboration platforms and document management software can make all the difference in effective long-distance teamwork. But only if they perform up to task.

The difficulty is that it is often not as simple as purchasing these technology tools and letting them loose. Without a solid network infrastructure in place, the accumulation of these resource-intensive applications can cause latency issues that can render them effectively useless.

The IT professionals at Graef, Anhalt, Schloemer and Associates (GASAI), an engineering and architectural firm based in Milwaukee, WI, recently learned this lesson the hard way.

GASAI has hundreds of knowledge workers scattered across its eight nationwide branches. Over the years it had installed a variety of applications over its wide area network (WAN) supposedly to enable its employees to call on faraway colleagues for help with projects. The problem was, the scientists and engineers weren't using these tools because the applications ran so slowly over the WAN.

"The upfront was all nice and dandy but we needed to address what we had on the back end for resources," said David Neumann, information services team leader at the company. "We were definitely noticing a bottleneck in the bandwidth. Trying to collaborate with some of these larger design files, which tend to be flat binary files, became pretty hard to deal with."

Employees found it so difficult to make remote changes on documents during collaboration that they'd rather pack their bags and travel between branches to get their work done. Clearly something needed to be done to alleviate the situation, but Neumann considered a bump up in bandwidth a last-resort option.

"The problem with that was obviously the increase in cost per month, a cost that really doesn't decrease," he said. "That is a consistent per-month expense we'd be looking at incurring, so we were really interested in trying to optimize what we already had in place."

Like an increasing number of enterprises these days, GASAI turned to WAN optimization as an alternative to costly increases to bandwidth. According to Forrester Research, WAN optimization hardware and software improves efficiency of WAN infrastructure through four major techniques: caching, protocol optimization, compression and traffic management.

Robert Whiteley with Forrester says that there has been a recent explosion in WAN uptake due to a number of factors, which have caused performance issues similar to GASAI's across organizations of all sizes. Most significant have been the two opposing forces of IT consolidation and the geographical dispersal of the workforce. Most IT departments these days are consolidating data centers, trimming down on systems through virtualization. Meanwhile, many businesses are spreading their workers geographically through branch office openings and the flexibility to work from home. In fact, Forrester estimates that more than 70 percent of the nation's workers do not work from their corporate headquarters, Whiteley says.

"That is causing this diametric problem that you've got this ever shrinking footprint for your infrastructure with an ever growing footprint for your applications," he said. "All of that adds up to the infamous killer of latency."

Though WAN optimization and acceleration tools have been on the market for several years now, it has seen particularly dramatic market growth in the past year. According to a recent report by Infonetics Research sales revenue during the third quarter of 2007 were double of those during the same quarter of the previous year. Though the numbers aren't in yet, the firm believes that 2007 revenues totaled $700 million, which would be a 65 percent increase over the previous year. It also predicts that the market will grow to $1.2 billion in sales by 2010.

Whiteley believes that the recent growth is attributable to the maturation of the technology. In the past many tools either optimized from either a data-centric or an application-centric standpoint.

"Each one of them existed in their own separate domains for a while, but they each only solved about half of the problem," he said, "Vendors beginning to bring these two halves together and creating a solution that could do both and could make them trade off dynamically was when we really began to see a real uptick in the market."

Now that the major players have done this and the market has begun to rapidly expand, though, enterprises face an additional hurdle of choosing the right vendor amidst a lot of players.

"The technology solved such intensive demand in application performance that we've seen an explosion in popularity which is always difficult in a market because every vendor hops on the bandwagon," Whiteley said.

He suggests that businesses consider three main factors when developing a short list. The first is scalability. "There are a couple of gotchas in the market where scalability can haunt enterprises or businesses that don't think it through properly," he said. "What I mean by that is most of these appliances will sell based on bandwidth. The problem is that is only one dimension of scablability. The other dimension is how many application flows can it process."

The next decision factor is performance.

"Some of these devices really are just repurposed Linux boxes running a couple of features," he said. "You want to make sure this things has the performance you actually need."

And finally, reliability can be very important if the business plans on increasing traffic volume once the WAN has been optimized.

"The trick here is that a lot of companies originally thought, well if the box fails, the worst case scenario is that it fails to the original unoptimized network," he said, "but if you began to put these in place, change the mix of traffic you have and then one o f these boxes fails, then it may completely flood your network."

In the case of GASAI, Neumann decided to go with F5 Networks' WANJet appliance after whittling the vendor choices down to three: F5, Riverbed Technologies and Juniper Networks. Though Riverbed is a market leader, it was first to be eliminated due to uncertainty with its partnership with HP at the time.

Once it became a shootout between F5 and Juniper, the big deciding factors were scalability and cost effectiveness. "The WANJet solution was more cost effective for what we were looking to do, plus just the scalability and being able to customize and tune each specific data flow that we had coming in was appealing to us," Neumann said. "We have a lot of flexibility and scalability and a sense of what we optimize and what we don't optimize."

Now that applications are running through the WAN optimizer, Neumann says the company has seen a 270 percent increase in effective bandwidth and a drastic decrease in the number of business trips that employees must take.

"It has enabled us to use a lot more tools without having to up and travel," he said. "Users have mentioned that when working on the files, the initial open up is a little bit better and some of the things that they had issues with in making changes with file aren't a problem anymore. It's not exactly like working in the main office, but it's pretty darn close."

In travel costs alone the company has saved over $70,000. Additionally, the solution also opens up the future possibility to do more data replication across the branches, something which would have never worked with the unoptimized WAN.

"What we want to do is migrate that data around, but we would never been able to push that kind of data around if we didn't have access to the bandwidth that we do now," he said.

With such remarkable growth within the WAN market space last year, Whiteley with Forrester expects that the technology's prevalence is going to continue grow to the point where it becomes a standard technology within the enterprise. He believes that in the coming year the questions that WAN optimization shoppers are asking will change slightly, though.

"I think the decision isn't going to be whether you do it or not, but how much of it do I need and where do I put it," he said, adding his rule of thumb. "If you have a real high volume of data that moves across your WAN you are going to want a standalone appliance that can handle that," he said. "When you get below 1000 current application requests, for example 200 employees using 5 applications, you hit a performance threshold where you have a lot more options available, you might put it in a router, you might put it in some other server platform, things like that."

This article was originally published on 2008-01-04
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