Analysis

WAN optimisation: improving the performance of business applications

Antony Savvas

There is an explosion of data going over company networks thanks to the consumerisation of IT and bring your own device (BYOD) policies, video conferencing, social networking, flexible and remote working, and the linking of wide area networks (WANs) to remote applications and cloud service providers.

As a result firms have to consider optimising their WAN to ensure business performance. But what does WAN optimisation entail, and what type of optimisation solutions are out there?

A number of factors should be considered when deploying a WAN optimisation system.

Understanding the desired benefit the WAN optimisation service is being asked to deliver is critical to selecting the right service, says Richard Keir, a consultant in Deloitte’s technology practice. For instance, is an optimisation device being purchased to deliver more consistent performance of a key application, or to overcome poor performance of the regional infrastructure, or just to reduce cost?

Keir says: "The performance of these devices can be very variable depending on the specific traffic patterns and protocol mixes, and this will affect how well these devices perform, so customers should always seek to try before they buy, and ensure that any trial tests several optimisation solutions to identify the device that works best for their specific environment."

WAN optimisation in practice

DC Leisure (DCL) specialises in the development and management of leisure facilities in partnership with local authorities throughout the UK.

Phil White, head of IT at DCL, says the company saw WAN optimisation as a way of upgrading its network cost effectively. White says: "WAN optimisation allowed us to deal with a sharp increase in data traffic as a result of a number of new business applications and processes, which had put the network under intense pressure.

"Our IT partner Panacea recommended WAN optimisation as a way we could upgrade our network infrastructure without using expensive leased lines." 

A pilot programme was implemented using Riverbed's Steelhead appliances at the firm's central support office, datacentre and a leisure centre site.

As a result, says White, key application data reduced by up to 92%, with file transfer speeds increased, and improved stability with all applications running across the network.

DEK, a provider of screen printing equipment and processes for diverse industries, including semiconductors, fuel cells and solar cells, has also benefited from WAN opimisation. The company was suffering from sluggish wide area network (WAN) performance. The company’s costing predictions showed that WAN capacity would have to double every three years to sustain the necessary traffic, and DEK realised that it would also have to install expensive local servers and storage at its branch offices.

Instead DEK decided to create a new WAN architecture that would optimise traffic and use deduplication technology to streamline the data flow. It considered multiple products, including systems from Cisco and Citrix, but decided on a Riverbed system.

Steve Sheriff, DEK global infrastructure manager, says, "What surprised us was the return on investment possible from optimising, as opposed to increasing our bandwidth. After running the figures we realised that we were looking at a very quick return on investment and a total saving of around $480,000 over six years."

Many WAN optimisation products are advertised as "plug-and-play", but Keir says Deloitte clients are regularly finding that careful optimisation of devices is required to deliver maximum benefits. Network managers should plan for this requirement or ask their network service provider to do it for them as part of an agreement.

However, in the case of telecom providers supporting such a solution in the cloud, perhaps, Keir warns "many only support a limited product set and in some cases are still developing their capabilities and skills to implement and manage such systems". Customers should therefore carefully assess actual service capabilities before outsourcing such a task to their service provider.

WAN optimisation is supposed to be a highly granular and dynamic way of organising network traffic to ensure the most important data items are always given network priority in full support of the business and its users.

But it is important for companies to realise that WAN optimisation cannot be simply delivered through quality of service (QoS) levels they may have agreed with their WAN provider.

Larry Dutton, product manager at independent infrastructure provider Redstone, says: "While QoS provides basic splitting of bandwidth on traffic types such as voice or web traffic, it doesn't provide the detail required to ensure that specific applications, users and business processes are given network priority."

Fully featured WAN optimisation systems should sort and prioritise traffic before it even hits the WAN, allowing organisations to avoid QoS costs levied by many WAN providers.

Successful WAN optimisation entails "a meeting of minds between the network administrator and the business", says Dutton. It’s not simply about slicing the network to prioritise traffic types but mirroring business process priorities in the flow and control of network traffic.

Typically companies are investing in in-line WAN optimisation appliances that sort and prioritise data based on rules at every WAN entry point. These systems sort network traffic as it queues to enter the WAN and then apply the required throttle or bandwidth based on priority.

Having optimisation-as-a-service (OaaS) provided by a WAN provider is also becoming more common. This allows an Opex (operating expenditure) approach to the traditional upfront investment required for hardware appliances. 

By delivering a WAN optimisation service the provider is placing control over traffic priority directly into the hands of their customers, giving them more control over their own traffic than is possible when using fixed QoS policies to simply prioritise traffic.

Jato, a provider of automotive business intelligence that provides up-to-the-minute research on vehicle specifications, sales registrations and pricing, is built on a complex infrastructure of branch and overseas offices. All the offices need access to the latest synchronised industry data and analysis.

The firm had previously provided access to corporate resources via a combination of remote connectivity and site-to-site VPN (virtual private network) technologies. This technology, while offering secure access, provided no optimisation of data or applications.

The limitation of this approach was slow response times when accessing and processing data, which resulted in lower productivity while consultants and branch office workers waited for reports to be generated and numbers to be crunched. 

Eddie Dodoo, IT infrastructure manager at Jato, turned to IT security and data networks specialist Network Surety to specify a system that would change things around for the better.

Dodoo said: "Our objective was clear, to create a ‘branch in a box’ consisting of a single secure networking solution that optimised data and applications between the branch office and the UK-based datacentre. It was also important for branch-office hardware to be kept to a minimum for operational reasons."

Network Surety analysed the behaviour of the company’s applications to identify potential improvements in performance.

Blue Coat’s virtual proxy appliance, the ProxySG-VA Mach5 edition, was chosen to provide WAN optimisation functionality. Blue Coat’s ProxyClient was also rolled out globally to remote workers on laptops and desktops to accelerate data transfer for those working with remote VPN client services.

The Mach5 technology provides a blend of protocol optimisation, compression, caching and bandwidth management. This means that the speed of key applications can be increased to give greater flexibility and enhanced productivity to users.


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