Branch offices are rife with bottlenecks and slowdowns, caused mostly by too much traffic traveling too many miles with too little bandwidth.
But at the networking conference Interop yesterday in the USA, panels of analysts and vendors offered tips and guidance on upgrading and optimizing the branch office to ensure smooth sailing in remote locations.
As John Martin, vice president of product management for WAN optimization vendor Riverbed, put it: WAN and branch office optimization are "like crack; once users have tried it, they don't want to go back."
But getting the most out of a branch office requires taking a step back and evaluating exactly what a branch office comprises, Forrester Research senior analyst Robert Whiteley said in his session "Upgrading the Branch Office." A branch office means different things to different companies: For some, it's simply a branch; for others, it's a remote or home worker; for still others, it could be an oil rig in the middle of the ocean.
Either way, with roughly 50% to 70% of employees working outside of corporate headquarters at least some of the time, moving toward upgrading the branch now can relieve WAN-related headaches tomorrow.
"Today's IT applications will become branch office bottlenecks without a proper upgrade strategy," Whiteley said, adding that the WAN increasingly comes under fire from a variety of pressures.
Three factors play into branch office bottlenecks, according to Whiteley -- an increased application footprint, a decreased infrastructure footprint, and an increased expectation of reliability. And for many companies, he said, the WAN can become a "pencil-thin, often-neglected three-letter word."
Companies are looking to the WAN to deliver content, perform remote backups, distribute applications and decentralize security. Whiteley said three sets of technologies are critical to a branch office upgrade: secure routing, like Cisco's Integrated Services Router (ISR) and tools from Nortel, 3Com and HP ProCurve; remote management, from the likes of Uplogix and Cambrio; and WAN-optimization, symmetric-acceleration appliances that increase throughput and decrease latency by using caching, protocol optimization, compression, route optimization, QoS and traffic grooming.
Today's branch, Whiteley said, is too complex, requiring different appliances for routing, wireless access points, security, acceleration, management and IP PBX. And though a "branch in a box" appliance may be a quick fix for branch office woes -- consolidating routing, wireless access point, security, acceleration, management and IP PBX into one appliance -- Whiteley was quick to caution that the technology is not yet mature, is operationally challenging, and may result in technology and vendor lock-in.
Right now, he said, Cisco and Juniper offer branch-in-a-box tools, and Microsoft and Nortel aren't far behind.
"It all comes down to your needs," Whiteley said, noting that Forrester recommends that companies focus their branch offices on three to four functions, meaning keeping acceleration, management and IP PBX separate.
"With the right foundation, you can stage your architecture to a fully integrated branch by 2010," he said. The first stage should be using separate devices for routing, acceleration, communications and management; the second stage combines routing with communications and management; and the third stage, which is about three years out, is a fully integrated branch in a box.
There are five key steps to upgrading the branch office:
- Gaining visibility into applications before tackling a branch upgrade
- Pinpointing performance and security bottlenecks
- Building a focused set of criteria
- Having a well-thought-out testing plan and taking baseline results while consolidating infrastructure
- Serving "high-pain areas" and rollout only where it makes sense
Robin Gareiss, senior founding partner of Nemertes Research, said recent studies found that WAN traffic is expected to grow between two- and fourfold in the very near future. When it comes to upgrading the branch, optimization is key.
"Optimization really has become a requirement," she said. "It's no longer an exception."
The massive increase in WAN traffic can be attributed to the proliferation of applications.
Additional research from Nemertes found that most companies that deployed WAN optimization tools see payback in 12 months or sooner, in some cases without increasing bandwidth, and in other, rarer cases, actually being able to decrease bandwidth.
Gareiss agreed that the next step for the WAN is the growth of all-in-one boxes, especially since research shows that a mere 18% of branch offices have in-house IT departments, and they could benefit from a simple-to-use platform.
Mike Banic, senior director of product management for Juniper, said there are five key needs moving companies toward a branch in a box: connectivity, integrated VoIP, WAN optimization, unified threat management, and access control.
"We want our workers to get more done in a day than they did before," Banic said, stressing that faster traffic flows lead to better productivity.
Juniper offers a branch office box that includes its WAN optimization module, an Avaya voice gateway module, Screen OS unified threat management, and identity-based access controls.
Riverbed's John Martin said many branch office hang-ups can be attributed to root problems such as bandwidth limitations, the chattiness of transport protocols, and the inefficiency of application protocols.
"When you have congestion, it's miserable," he said, adding that many companies are striving for LAN-like performance over the WAN.
By upgrading the branch and optimizing traffic, companies can reduce costs, increase productivity and improve data protection.
Moving file, mail and Web servers and tape backup systems to a central location cuts costs, while the use of collaborative applications regardless of locations and near immediate data exchanges boosts productivity. The ability to perform remote data backup in minutes rather than hours can help protect data.
Overall, most industry experts at Interop suggested that users should take vendors up on their offers to run free trials of many WAN optimization tools and run side-by-side comparisons to determine their success. Martin took it one step further and suggested that users look for references within their industry and test out products in production to a limited number of branches to ensure the desired results.
A network engineer for a national insurance company (which does not allow him to speak for the record) said he and his team have been evaluating tools to ease traffic and transfer issues within the company's multiple branch offices. But he noted that they are in the early stages of investigation and have not yet decided on the appropriate way to tackle the issues.
"We've been adding more bandwidth to fight branch office problems, but that's getting too expensive," he said. "We're looking for a way to give end users access to what they need without incurring massive costs."