Across the business landscape, IT managers agree that a closer look at wide area network (WAN) optimization makes strategic sense as companies transition from running proprietary enterprise networks to working in today’s hyperconnected cloud environment, in which everyone’s data is flying across the Internet. How they implement the strategy depends on a number of factors, from their existing setup and business needs to their overall budget.
WAN optimization, a series of technology operations that speed up data transfer across enterprise networks, has been around for well more than a decade, but it’s currently taking a higher priority thanks to virtualization and increased reliance on the cloud.
Understanding that the transition to the cloud would coincide with the increased use of graphics-intensive electronic medical records, the IT staff at the AIDS Healthcare Foundation in Los Angeles took a practical approach to WAN optimization. Art Kirakosyan, director of IT infrastructure, says the organization simply migrated from a Citrix NetScaler appliance to the updated Citrix NetScaler Cloud Bridge. Besides prioritizing and balancing network traffic, as the NetScaler does, the Cloud Bridge offers enhanced caching to speed up access to frequently used data. It also lets the foundation run virtual instances without having to change apps to interact with a different network, delivering much improved performance overall.
Founded in 1987, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation delivers medical care and HIV/AIDS advocacy to more than 319,000 patients in 33 countries. The health organization operates close to 130 offices worldwide, about 70 of them in the United States, which is where the Citrix Cloud Bridge appliances are used, for the most part. The Foundation’s doctors, patients and AIDS researchers rely on a robust enterprise network. The vast majority of the files that foundation staff work with are SQL databases, Citrix ICA applications and MAPI traffic for messaging and email, but doctors and researchers also send electronic medical record files.
“When accompanied by charts, these files can be graphics-intensive and in the past have bogged down the network,” Kirakosyan says, adding that the recent upgrade to the Cloud Bridge has seen data compression rates improve by 50 percent. “The improved network performance goes a long way to helping the staff treat patients more efficiently with timely information.”
Companies are also taking a closer look at WAN optimization as they realize that cloud-based Software as a Service (SaaS) applications such as Microsoft Office 365 and Google Docs will take up more bandwidth across the network than in the past.
Just adding more bandwidth won’t solve all companies’ network performance issues. Maintaining peak performance also requires caching, deduping and acceleration tools that reduce traffic across the WAN to speed things up. Such challenges are typical of IT managers in this time of transition between applications that users run locally on their machines versus SaaS applications that run over the cloud.
Bob Laliberte, formerly a senior analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group, estimates that about 70 percent of organizations are now using public cloud applications, which inevitably tax networks, so it also makes sense that they will be revisiting WAN optimization in the next 12 months. “By a factor of 2 to 1, IT managers who run public cloud applications say users often complain about slow response times,” he says.
Until recently, WAN optimization was generally handled as part of Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) packages such as Microsoft Azure, but it’s increasingly being worked out as part of SaaS applications. Industry analysts expect to see even more cloud-leveraged WAN optimization products come to market in the coming year.
Besides improving the speed of networks, today’s WAN optimization solutions help companies save money, space and time in other ways. Virtual environments such as database or application servers can be set up on dedicated WAN optimization appliances, for example, which consolidate network management at the same time that they improve overall bandwidth performance.
GeoEngineers, an engineering consulting firm in Seattle, realized some big savings by running VMware virtual servers on its Riverbed Steelhead appliances. The move reduced IT department costs by about $80,000 over three years — on top of lower maintenance expenses — because it didn’t have to buy all new application servers.
“We realized our return on investment inside of a year,” says Mitchel Weinberger, a senior systems administrator at GeoEngineers.
GeoEngineers runs Riverbed’s SteelFusion storage system, which optimizes and accelerates storage data via iSCSI across the company’s nine locations. He says the combination of Riverbed WAN optimization and storage technologies that are developed to run over the Internet let the company’s engineers comfortably run graphics-intensive engineering files, as well as run video conferences via Microsoft Lync.
So when it comes to WAN optimization, organizations take different approaches, from simple hardware upgrades to solutions that blend technologies from companies such as Akamai, Cisco Systems, Riverbed and VMware. The choices for implementation may be plentiful, but one thing is certain: As more companies rely increasingly on their networks to conduct their daily business, they’ll need to figure WAN optimization into their upcoming plans for 2015.