When WANs Aren’t Wide Enough

CIO Magazine‘s recent tech poll revealed something that may not be surprising to corporate network managers: Spending on networks has eclipsed computer hardware as the top IT budget category. What is surprising is that this isn’t due to an increase in the local area networks (LANs) that now run in almost every company office. Even though LANs are beginning to show their age, experts agree the existing technology can still supply plenty of bandwidth and hasn’t required much new investment. The budget buster is the corporate WAN, or wide area network.

“Organizations are much more distributed,” explains George Hamilton, the director of Yankee Group’s enabling technologies enterprise group in Boston, Mass. “They’ve got a lot of branch offices and mobile users, and there’s a big push to make enterprise applications that you would normally be able to use sitting at a desk in an office available to users wherever they are, whether they’re at an airport or a hotel or their home PC or in a branch office. So you need to empower the network to be able to support those types of applications.”

But while users are more distributed, data centers are becoming more centralized. According to Jim Metzler of Ashton, Metzler & Associates, in Sanibel, Fla., “HP is going from 85 data centers down to six. The state of Texas is going from 31 to two.” As a result, data has to travel farther to get to any particular user.

Boosting WAN Capability

If WANs provide a future solution, they also pose a present problem. LANs carry traffic over 10/100Mbps Ethernet cables, says Hamilton, while WANs trudge along at a stodgy 1.544Mbps. Many companies are speeding up those WAN connections by simply adding more pipes, or bandwidth. But increasingly, IT centers are looking toward more sophisticated options, because there will always be demand for additional bandwidth.

“I’m very bullish on the whole network and application optimization space,” Metzler says. “There’s a variety of products and solutions out there to make the WAN perform better. Or make the applications that run over the WAN perform better.”

The two most common techniques for sending less information over the network are:

  • Compression: squeezing the data being transferred to compact size before being sent, then expanding the transmission back to native format at the destination.
  • Differencing: a method by which files that are being sent from one part of the network to another are compared, and only the differences in the files are transmitted. For example, a large database that is updated in India and then sent to the U.S. at the end of the Indian workday isn’t transmitted in full — only the parts of the database that have been updated are sent. The savings in bandwidth are significant.

These solutions are usually deployed via dedicated performance appliances offered by companies such as Cisco Systems, Juniper Solutions and Riverbed Technology.

Critical Data Gets Priority

Another smart investment, Hamilton and Metzler agree, is QoS software. QoS, or Quality of Service, enables network administrators to “see” into the network traffic, to identify what types of data are going where and control what gets network priority. NetQoS is a major provider of software and services in this category. “Our goal in life is to understand how well applications are performing for those remote users. That is really the best measure of how well the infrastructure is delivering applications and gives companies visibility into what is on the network,” explains NetQoS VP of Marketing Steve Harriman. “Is VOiP a major consumer of bandwidth? Is SAP? Is it your salesforce automation system? Is it recreational use, which we’re seeing increasing amounts of?”

Once the main bandwidth consumers have been determined, a company may decide that infrastructure upgrades are in order. Of course, upgrades are inevitable in any case, and what QoS software can do, says Harriman, is “ensure that mission-critical apps are getting first access to the pipe, ahead of recreational use, for example.” A company may have a fairly long priority sequence, and then an “as available” bucket, which may be where recreational traffic gets routed.

Smart Investments Open the Pipes

Although every enterprise has its unique networking challenges, experts agree that increasing capacity, or simply adding more pipes, may be an effective “brute force” solution, but not necessarily a wise investment. Rather, IT professionals should first invest in a QoS product to analyze their network. Only then, based on the resulting insights of how data flows, consider investing in optimization, acceleration and differencing appliances. While more bandwidth will undoubtedly be needed sooner or later, these immediate investments will pay off in both the short and long term.