Optimising small business networks

Much has been said about network optimisation recently. The expected onslaught of new wave applications - so called at least - such as VoIP, IPTV and the rest, means that we do have to optimise and re-architect our networks if this stuff is actually going to be deliverable at acceptable quality levels, says Steve Broadhead, director of Broadband-Testing Labs.

Much has been said about network optimisation recently. The expected onslaught of new wave applications - so called at least - such as VoIP, IPTVand the rest, means that we do have to optimise and re-architect our networks if this stuff is actually going to be deliverable at acceptable quality levels, says Steve Broadhead, director of Broadband-Testing Labs.

However, much of this talk is aimed at deployments at service provider or enterprise levels. So, what about the small business or branch office - do these guys not require some level of optimisation too? Historically, possibly not. If all they were doing was running some kind of Office application suite and little beyond that, other than e-mail and web browsing, then it's difficult to see exactly what could be optimised, other than themselves of course, but we'll come back to that one.

Regarding the mass take-up of real-time applications such as VoIP - why would a small business not wish to take advantage of cheap or free calls? Similarly, Internet/video conferencing makes a lot of sense for interaction between multiple small businesses where budget is restricted. At the same time just because a business is small or of the branch office variety it doesn't mean that it is not a very high value business with the same critical reliance on a network as a multi-billion dollar multi-national company (remember these - they existed before "global" ones).

So, let us define what optimisation means for these companies - performance, yes, but also reliability, flexibility and user control. Let's start with the latter. There is little doubt that a user's worst enemy is often themselves. In a scenario where there is no electronic nanny to protect them, all too often a user will find themselves in difficulties of their own making hence the existence of anti-virus products, website advisor services and other related methods of preventing a user from infecting their PC and losing valuable data. However, many of these products and services are aimed at protecting the user purely from the vagaries of the internet, rather than the internal network or simply the contents of the PC or laptop that user has.

It is all very well for a network administrator to document what applications and services a user should have access to and which they should not, but what if there is no way of controlling or policing those policies - a classic small business or branch office problem?

Similarly, a user should also be protected from technology overload while being allowed to know if their PC or laptop is running as it should, whether it is free of malicious content, or be warned if potential problems are arising. We investigated this area when we worked with NewNetTechnologies and its Remote Angel product - essentially an automated first line of support with lots of white-listing options for tying down users to a very exact set of applications and services.

In terms of providing uptime, this kind of user protection is every bit as important as integrated redundancy and resiliency in the network devices being deployed. Performance on a wired LAN - given the incredibly low cost of Gigabit Ethernet switch ports these days - shouldn't be a general problem, but downtime still is. That said, if the mix of applications is many and varied, and deployments of VoIP and other delicate traffic types are increasing, then a level of control is required if we are to guarantee quality delivery of those applications.

While many of even the budget switches have some kind of integrated QoS, actually setting up this stuff is likely to be beyond most small business users, while still not necessarily providing the levels of control they need.

Recently, we looked at a version of Zeus' ZXTM traffic controller within a virtualised environment. The idea here is that, by running a Layer 4-7 optimisation product as a virtual application on a bog standard server platform, it makes true LAN traffic management a reality for the small business.

Even I was sceptical about pulling this one off, but we proved that it is entirely possible to run ZXTM in a virtualised environment alongside other applications on the same server. So where out and out performance is less of an issue than data management and manipulation, ZXTM can be a very cost-effective add-on to an existing application server environment.

Dave Asprey, VP Marketing for Zeus, says: "We see LAN optimisation as a challenge for small businesses because vendors often provide low functionality and low performance gear without fault tolerance in order to meet the price point that a small business can afford. This is a major problem because small businesses actually need high functionality, but not the high performance required by a large enterprise. And who says small businesses don't care about high availability? Of course they do, but until recently, there was not a way for them to afford redundancy within a budget."

Asprey believes that the emergence of the virtual appliance - something that can be deployed on existing Windows servers and take advantage of any excess computing power - is the way forward for small business network optimisation.

"This way a small business gets the same high availability and high functionality that big enterprises get, and more than enough performance, but they do it without wasting money on more hardware," he says.

Earlier, I mentioned flexibility and by that I mean the ability to work as and when you need to. In last month's article for Computer Weekly I spoke about being always connected outside the LAN in relation to testing I had just carried out with Brand Communications and, before that, our testing with DBAM Systems and the fantastic acceleration and traffic control we achieved over the WAN, but that is primarily outside of the office. So what about within it?

Well here is where a WLAN really does make a lot of sense, as a natural extension to the wired network, meaning far easier deployments - no cables running everywhere. Obviously, we are not talking deployment of high-end, enterprise-oriented WLAN solutions here, but even at the SMB level there are some tricks to look for, that will optimise the WLAN within a small business environment.

For example, ProCurve's snappily-named 530ww Access Point has a simple trick: two radios - meaning that both 54Mbps 802.11a and 802.11g IEEE standards can be supported concurrently, on different radios within the same AP. Alternatively, both radios can be set to 802.11b/g and coverage can be optimised using external antennae if required, though the product comes, as standard, with dual internal, omni-directional antennae. So it is a doddle to deploy and requires little in the way of day-to-day management, keeping operating costs right down - another point of optimisation, in this case at the real bottom line.

Regarding network management and administration, another element to look at is in delivering core network services such as DNS, DHCP, IP Address Management and centralised security/authentication, using something like RADIUS. Typically this stuff is done manually, but is again prone to human error and costly downtime. So it might be worth taking a look at another appliance solution such as those provided by Infoblox.

Though originally aimed at the enterprise and far too expensive to be considered for most small business deployments, the company has now introduced an entry-level product that it claims to be no more expensive to acquire than the manual equivalent - a server plus software - and considerably less expensive to run on a daily basis. The new generation of applications such as VoIP and video - in its various forms - are being applied in the small businesses.

The uptake of applications such as IP Telephony and longer term, potentially video, is being driven equally by the small business keen to gain competitive edge. Smaller businesses tend to have more mobile workforces, and so remote access and mobility are often key drivers for these technologies. These need optimising in a way that traditional data applications don't.

As with traditional data applications, bandwidth is becoming more critical as the uptake of these applications increase, something that the scaling of technologies such as Gigabit Ethernet is helping to address, says Dave Smith, VP Business Solutions at D-Link Europe.

Smith says: "However, whereas most data applications don't care if bandwidth is shared or transmissions interrupted, some applications - for example VoIP and video - are very sensitive to latency, particularly when smaller businesses often rely on public offerings once they are outside of their network (e.g. DSL links from an ISP into their business). Traffic also needs to be prioritised and delivered in a reliable and timely fashion."

The point to understand is, for small business and branch office environments, optimisation comes in many shapes and forms, so don't just think performance.


Read more on IT for small and medium-sized enterprises (SME)