The pros and cons of WAN optimisation

For many businesses, WAN optimisation can provide significant performance improvements, but projects can prove to be costly and complex.

In these days of multinational corporations, regional offices, mergers and acquisitions and mobile workers, fast and reliable telecommunications is a must - without it workers cannot do their jobs.

That’s where the role of the wide area network (WAN) comes in. A geographically-dispersed telecoms network that hooks up a company’s headquarters in London, its R&D centre in Eastern Europe and its US office in New York, for example.

But WANs can have their own problems, their own inefficiencies that can cause frustration. They can be slow and unreliable, as anything running over the internet can be.

For many businesses, WAN optimisation can provide significant performance improvements, using techniques such as compression, caching, de-duplication, latency optimisation and more.

The result is, hopefully, faster data transfer, increased reliability and a reduction in bandwidth. A WAN optimisation project can also reduce costs and save money by prolonging the usable life of hardware components and remove the need to add additional bandwidth capacity.

It sounds like a perfect project to undertake, reducing costs while increasing performance ticks just about every enterprise box. But WAN optimisation projects can prove costly and complex, and that is why the market has stalled in recent years.

According to Gartner, the sector was due to grow to $4.44bn in 2014. However, a more recent report from Infonetics Research claimed the WAN optimisation industry is trending downwards. Its research suggested sales fell 11% between the second quarter of 2012 and the same period in 2013.

Clive Longbottom, founder of analyst Quocirca, says the slowdown in growth is partly due to the market levelling out: “Large organisations that needed it have got it and small companies don’t understand what WAN optimisation is about, so that just leaves the mid-market.”

Mark Urban, senior product manager at Blue Coat Systems, says his company has seen “tremendous” slowdown in the market. This is due to two main factors, Urban says. The first is that the immediate rush in the WAN optimisation industry has died down: “The low-hanging fruit has been picked,” he says.

The second reason, as Urban puts it, is that the “old way [of doing traditional WAN optimisation] doesn’t fix the new problems.” This is one of the biggest drivers in the WAN optimisation industry at the moment – the shift to cloud computing means business traffic is travelling in and out of the datacentre. That affects the impact of WAN optimisation, Urban says.

“WAN optimisation really took off back in 2005/2006. That’s when a lot of branch office consolidation started as CIOs wanted to get control over their information,” he says. 

“That coincided with the heavy virtualisation of datacentres so they were able to collapse all that distributed data into centralised datacentres and then scale them out.

“Now what we are seeing is a shift, with more employees using mobile devices, for example. They are consuming a lot of data. The other shift is more to do with enterprise architectures. Whether it’s or ERP of Microsoft Office 365, or bring your own device schemes or shadow IT or recreational traffic - so many workloads are being delivered over the cloud instead of between a datacentre and a branch office.”

The upshot of all this is that WAN optimisation is no longer a one-size-fits-all endeavour. Companies that have embraced cloud computing are unlikely to find much use in a traditional WAN optimisation project, which tends to involve appliances sitting in datacentres and out at branch offices.

The argument that WAN optimisation can prove to be an expensive and complex task is often true, and attempting one when most traffic is going between on-premise and the cloud is more likely to prove that argument further.

This is why many of the leading WAN optimisation suppliers - Blue Coat Systems, Silver Peak, Riverbed, Cisco and Juniper, for example - have started to change their offerings, according to Longbottom. This includes a hybrid offering, where the hardware sits in the corporate datacentre and software operates at remote/branch offices.

“WAN optimisation should never be considered a ‘cure-all,’ one-size-fits-all solution,” says Sebastian Kruk, product manager at Compuware APM.

“Application characteristics and distribution mean some applications perform better under WAN optimisation techniques than others. In the worst-case scenario WAN optimisation can actually have a negative impact on the user experience, becoming the problem it was originally brought in to solve.”

Application characteristics and distribution mean that some applications perform better under WAN optimisation techniques than others

Sebastian Kruk, Compuware APM

Therefore, and this of course applies to all big technology projects, it is vital to go into it with a clear idea of what problem you are trying to solve. The first steps to take are to establish what is taking up most bandwidth. Blue Coat estimates that on average 60% of corporate traffic is taken up by YouTube and other recreational traffic.

“First understand what the problem is – what the traffic is on your network and diagnose what you’re really trying to accomplish. If more workloads/traffic are from the internet you should consider re-architecturing your network to give each branch office direct access, so that internet traffic is not going over the corporate WAN,” says Urban.

Internet caching and splitting, which can speed up application response times and reduce bandwidth consumption, as well as single-site caching can also help in this situation. 

It could also be that a simple traffic management platform is suitable - prioritising certain business applications over others and limiting recreational traffic will help by freeing up bandwidth to keep the business running and users happy.

“Gaining this level of understanding before you commit to investing in WAN optimisation means businesses can figure out exactly what is causing any data slow-down, and assessing if WAN optimisation would improve the situation. They can check whether it is a network problem or whether it’s something less severe – perhaps a minor glitch in the system which can be easily remedied,” says Kruk.

So the key to WAN optimisation is to establish first whether your business actually needs it. If it is the right path to be on, the benefits of a well-executed WAN optimisation project can be felt across the business.

“There is the hard return on investment in terms of money savings on bandwidth,” Urban says. “But there are also softer savings - those applications a business depends on work better, people are more productive, complaints decrease. That’s definitely a benefit.”

Read more on WAN performance and optimisation