I think it is fair to say that never before in the world of IT has there been more emphasis on the use of the internet and wide area networks to carry critical business applications, services and data.
But there are problems. For service providers, the opportunity to deliver live video over the internet, for example, presents a real business opportunity, yet owing to the delays inherent in wide area networks (Wans) - and especially over the internet - this can be a difficult service to deliver.
For enterprises looking to push their business applications globally and reach each and every office across the world, the inherent tendency of Wans and the internet to cause delays and have unpredictable service failures creates real problems for fast, reliable service and application delivery.
Moreover, most of these applications were not designed for use over Wans or the internet in the first place. In non-optimised environments, it is not unusual for users to witness round-trip response times - meaning the time taken from requesting data to it arriving within an application - in excess of 20 seconds. Which is about 19 seconds too long for most users.
And that is not the last of the problems. When surveyed, it turns out that most organisations do not know exactly what or how many applications are running over their Wan link, or exactly what their users are doing over their internet connections. As a result, most enterprises are running in excess of 70 applications over their Wan.
So how do companies find out what is running over the Wan and internet, optimise and traffic-shape where appropriate, and control the use of those applications in as finite a way as possible?
Until now, from the depths of Broadband Testing Labs, we would probably have recommended a combination of products. However, this is not ideal, especially if the products are coming from different suppliers with different user interfaces and so on.
But now there is an alternative: an all-in-one system that we have had under test for the best part of two months and cannot find fault with. It is called Exbander Precision (or EP) technology, and it is from a UK-based start-up called DBAM Systems. Heard of them? Probably not.
DBAM's EP technology is delivered in hardware product form in a range aimed at all sizes of businesses, from branch office or small company to enterprise and service provider levels.
What makes this product range stand out is that it does everything with no kind of compromise. This jack-of-all-trades is close to being a master of all. And at the entry level it is affordable by all enterprises too, costing £999. This means that the device significantly undercuts the pricing of any other equivalent product to date, yet it appears to offer considerably more features.
What, then, does it do, exactly? Our tests focused on the entry-level EP60, which is designed to optimise and accelerate Wan and internet application and service performance - a complex task - in as simple a way as possible.
Given this box's target market of small to medium enterprises and branch offices, the idea is to remove as much complexity as possible, as there will not be a team of IT experts on hand in each location.
To this end, the product provides a five-minute first-time install that lets the user choose the type of business the device will be optimised for - average, security conscious, etc - and automatically creates a business profile to suit that business type.
This is a real "out of the box", 90:90-rule product: one that will suit 90% of businesses 90% of the time. What is really impressive about the device after this initial set-up is the amount of fine-tuning that can be carried out, if required, in order to optimise the system for any given application.
We tested the EP60 using a variety of real data and video applications across a range of different internet connections. We found performance to be consistent and impressive. Data-delivery, such as data back-up, for example, was accelerated.
We saw a huge improvement even when moving archived data files across the internet - a process where you would not necessarily expect to see any performance acceleration at all. With voice and video - using the world's best-selling voice and videoconferencing system - we saw 2:1 compression, meaning that we halved the amount of bandwidth required to take that same voice and video steam across the internet.
These tests were conducted between offices in the UK and South Africa, on a link with latency in excess of 550ms. Bearing in mind that voice data does not typically transfer well when latency exceeds 50ms, for us to achieve a working solution across this connection and halve the bandwidth requirement was an impressive achievement.
So far so good - well, excellent actually - but here is where it gets even more interesting. While the EP60 is defined by DBAM as a Wan and internet bandwidth shaper-optimiser and traffic accelerator, it is also a very good Wan-monitoring device.
Everything that goes across the Wan or internet connection is visible this is a comprehensive Wan traffic management product, and that is not even the device's primary function.
While traditional network management tools provide detailed information on a level where only the extremely technically minded could really benefit, the EP's management interface lets you see exactly which applications are running (at layer 7) and how much bandwidth they are using.
This is incredibly useful to a network manager for controlling user activity, and also for capacity planning and modelling. Even in our own labs this capacity proved revealing. During testing on a live ADSL internet connection we saw, in addition to our expected http traffic, Pop3, Quicktime and Skype traffic running concurrently.
The value of this information is easy to picture in an office setting. Imagine you find that users are taking advantage - against office rules - of peer-to-peer and chat applications during working hours, using MSN Messenger or Gmail's chat feature, for example. The question then becomes one of what can be done about this activity.
We created exactly that scenario in the labs, kicking off a number of MSN Messenger sessions, which we then defined as being "banned" by the virtual organisation we generated for the test. Using the EP60, we were able to identify the MSN traffic, find out exactly who was using it, and then immediately block those users from having access to that application.
This whole procedure took about 60 seconds from start to finish. That alone would be a useful application, but with the DBAM product you can specify exactly who is able to use what, when they can use it, and how much bandwidth they will get at any given time. This is a very flexible system, allowing control down to individual users, applications, sub-applications and protocols.
And it is not even difficult to use: you can "shape" how much bandwidth you want a particular traffic type to have, for example, by dragging on its percentage in a pie-chart format to increase or decrease its share.
Given its low price, its breadth of functionality, its ease of installation and lack of compulsory day-to-day maintenance, we would expect any small to medium-sized business or branch office with a broadband internet or Wan connection to show interest in this technology.
● Steve Broadhead is director of Broadband Testing Labs