WAN optimisation strategies: Making the right decision

WAN optimisation products are flooding the market, and choosing one can be tricky. We examine the options and see how a few companies with different needs found the right technology to solve their WAN traffic problems.

In a flash, the WAN optimisation market has become crowded and competitive, with big names and small startups all hawking their wares. The influx of varying products puts the network team in a tight spot. How do they choose the best solution for their needs among the myriad products?

Methods such as compression, caching, application acceleration, protocol optimisation, quality of service monitoring, and bandwidth shaping can -- when used correctly -- shoot data and files across the WAN at a rapid clip, boosting productivity and cutting down transfer time. Several vendors, such as Riverbed, Orbital Data (recently acquired by Citrix), Juniper, Certeon, Expand, Silverpeak and Packeteer, have solutions to increase WAN speeds without throwing money at increased bandwidth.

In 2005, the WAN optimisation appliance market grew a whopping 49%, topping $236 million, according to Infonetics Research. The number of units shipped increased 39%. The WAN optimisation market will see double-digit annual growth through 2009, with annual unit shipments nearly tripling and revenue more than doubling.

But the challenge still lies in picking which method and which appliance works best for a particular organization. At SearchNetworking.com, we recently spoke to several network managers about their experiences with WAN optimisation solutions and the problems they were looking to solve. They discussed their selection criteria and how they measured improvements in WAN speeds. Some also touched on which appliances didn't make the cut, and why.

Riverbed braves the Stormwater

Mike Haskell, IT manager at Contech Stormwater Solutions in Maine, said his company's biggest challenge was swapping files among offices in Maine, Georgia and Maryland. Bandwidth-hogging applications such as videoconferencing, customer relationship management, and enterprise resource planning systems were putting a strain on the pipe.

"It was just painfully slow," Haskell said, adding that computer-aided drafting files also created some trouble. "And we couldn't increase the pipe size."

Trying to find a solution to speed things up without dropping a huge chunk of change for additional bandwidth, Haskell turned to three major WAN optimisation vendors: Riverbed, Cisco and Juniper. Each company's product was scrutinized and underwent rigorous testing. Using head-to-head comparison charts, Haskell took a Darwinian approach to his evaluations, letting only the strongest survive.

Cisco's product, Haskell said, used file caching and compression but was not an in-path solution and was somewhat difficult to deploy. Also, it didn't support pass-through, which allows data that's not being optimized to pass through untouched.

Next, Juniper went under the gun. Juniper's product also used file caching and compression. Haskell said the Juniper box replicated entire files, not just recent changes, and tunnels to peers had to be set up between units. Juniper did support in-path deployments.

Finally, Contech tried Riverbed's Steelhead, which used wide area file services, compression and protocol optimisation to speed transmission. Haskell said Steelhead was easy to integrate and showed the best acceleration across the largest number of applications. Steelhead also supported both in-path and out-of-path deployments.

For Contech, Steelhead was the clear victor, sending large files in half the time it usually took the Cisco or Juniper products. In an excited email to the rest of his team, Haskell proclaimed, "the Riverbed device kicked the [other vendors'] butt. It was very impressive. Browsing, opening and saving files was almost as fast as working on the local LAN. Once a file is downloaded, saving changes is very quick."

Printing process goes Orbital

While Haskell's hurdle was increasing WAN speed without throwing bandwidth and money at the problem, Metrocorp Publications, parent company of Boston Magazine, Philly Magazine and Boston's Weekly Dig, was facing challenges of its own.

Essentially, Metrocorp was wasting hours on its pre-press process. The company's printing is headquartered in Pennsylvania, but high-quality proofs needed to be sent to Boston. Each page took roughly an hour to print. Putting together a 200-page magazine meant waiting 200 hours for the proofs to print. That was too much time, according to Metrocorp's computer technology manager, Chris Majauckas.

The company weighed several solutions. One, a print management software product from Group Logic called MassTransit, cut the printing time in half but required a lot of manual work. Printing locally in Boston would have been too expensive. Majauckas said he pitted WAN optimisation products from Orbital Data (now owned by Citrix) and Packeteer against each other. The Orbital Data product, which specializes in compression and optimisation, won out in the evaluations.

"We turned it on and plugged it in," he said. "It was out of the printer in 20 minutes. We saw a 5-to-1 compression ratio on print files. That's huge."

Now, Majauckas said, anything going between Boston and Philadelphia is encrypted, compressed, decompressed and decrypted by the Orbital Data boxes at each end. After a little tweaking, print jobs take only 10 minutes, for a 6-to-1 ratio.

Florida Radiology expands WAN reach

As with Metrocorp, Florida Radiology had problems with sending huge files a great distance. Florida Radiology services three hospitals in the Miami area and five out-patient centers. Overall, the company handles more than half a million exams per year.

However, Florida Radiology needed to operate 24/7, not just during typical business hours. So the company branched out to Israel, opening an office there to handle the overnight workload.

"We needed -- for personnel reasons - to set up something outside this area for night coverage," said Dennis Wiseman, a Florida Radiology practice manager.

The company set up a direct line from Florida to New York. From there, New York connected to Israel over the Web. But sending images -- typically 1 to 9 MB each -- that way created a great deal of latency. The company was transporting studies containing between one and 1,000 images, and the return time from Israel was unsatisfactory.

Wiseman said his company looked to Expand Networks to compress the images and reduce the time it took them to traverse the WAN.

"We've seen a seven- to eightfold increase in our transfer data, time wise," he said. "Something that used to take an hour, which is unacceptable, now takes about eight minutes."

Before selecting Expand, however, Florida Radiology gauged various products and scenarios, including a direct line from New York to Israel. Expand's solution was rolled out in a testing environment.

"We were in a situation where we were kind of between a rock and a hard place," Wiseman said, adding that everyone was pleasantly surprised when Expand's solution chopped transfer time to a fraction, eventually even allowing Florida Radiology to decrease the amount of bandwidth to Israel.

Cutting the transfer time, Wiseman said, was a huge advantage. "We went from system-dependent to physician-dependent turnaround time," he said. "Before, a physician would read and wait. We were shooting ourselves in the foot that way."

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