Wide Area Networks (WANs) have linked computer systems, devices and users for more than 40 years, enabling people to access and share files, e-mail and run applications. As WAN hardware and software technologies have improved, so has the speed at which the systems communicate and operate. Still, many WANs don't function at their most efficient or optimal level.

An emerging technology, WAN optimization solutions seek to accelerate a broad range of applications accessed by distributed network users by eliminating redundant transmissions, staging data in local caches, compressing and prioritizing data and streamlining chatty protocols. The solutions are implemented on the network in the form of an appliance that classifies network traffic to help data flow more freely, thus speeding up operations. What does this mean to the enterprise?

WAN optimization solutions can be used to boost network performance without the need to acquire additional, expensive hardware. According to an IDC white paper from 2007, companies can save tens of thousands of dollars per 100 users in hardware, software and bandwidth costs. Simultaneously, businesses can reduce IT operations costs, increase user productivity and increase the number of users supported by each IT employee.

WAN optimization can speed up bulk data transfers to improve disaster recovery capabilities, improve response times for interactive applications such as databases, reduce bandwidth costs and present the opportunity to centralize file storage and consolidate servers. Some analyst firms even indicate WAN optimization can decrease link utilization from 80% to 40% through caching and compression. Tack on the time-savings and flexibility that result from choosing optimization over WAN replacement, and the return on investment (ROI) is readily apparent, helping justify the up-front cost.

Users WANt to See the Benefits

The improvements resulting from WAN optimization are visible to more than just IT managers. The results are noticed and appreciated by end-users who may not understand the technology behind it. End-users may experience:

  • Faster file accessibility: Due to caching, someone that utilizes the same files repeatedly will be able to access them more quickly because only new data must be saved and retrieved, rather than having to reload the full document.
  • Increased speed between multiple office locations: WAN solutions maximize network speed between remote locations, accelerating file transfers and network-based communications, such as e-mail.
  • Improved performance of "non-affected" applications: Applications that are not directly affected by optimization solutions appear to run more smoothly or faster because bandwidth previously used for other processes can now be dedicated to non-affected operations. For example, Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and other streaming media applications will operate more reliably.
  • More reliable and faster data recovery: Crashed servers and applications can take a significant amount of time to recover. Optimization's ability to increase network response time capabilities enable users to rapidly regain access to critical applications, increasing productivity.

IT Pros WANt to Know

WAN optimization is just beginning to gain popularity, and as more IT executives start to consider it as an option they must assess their current capabilities and systems to determine if optimization is the right path for their business.

First, assess the goals and needs of the network to determine the makeup of the traffic. Gauge the bandwidth needs of the network and if optimization will free enough bandwidth to meet demands. Determine if the network needs to store localized files, if file caching is necessary and establish a level of acceptable redundancy. Additional consideration should be given to the needs of each individual office, the affect optimization may have on their business and the growth plan for several years into the future.

Once the network needs have been identified, size the appliances to meet the needs of the business, with the option for scalability. Optimization appliances can meet the needs of any business, from engineering firms to financial institutions to advertising agencies, whether the organization's goal is to access heavy loads of large files or to enable a large number of users.

Finally, implement the optimization solution. While WAN optimization solutions are not complex, they are not as easy to integrate as a typical switch or router -- they are high-end appliances that must be implemented correctly in order to be effective. It is beneficial to seek vendor support for the implementation process, and many manufacturers offer full installation.

A few best practices to keep in mind throughout the selection and implementation process are:

  • Determine what type of files and data make up the majority of the business's traffic: User Datagram Protocol files such as Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), Trivial File Transfer Protocol (TFTP), and Internet Protocol Television (IPTV) do not tend to benefit from WAN optimization, but Transmission Control Protocol and Common Internet File System - e-mail and file transfers -- benefit greatly, and tend to be the most common files.
  • Test current network utilization and capabilities: Determine how long it takes for a remote office to download a file from the central office, as well as if the back up window between data centers is too extensive. Decide if increasing bandwidth to enhance performance and decrease latency is necessary.
  • Ensure vendors are aware of network goals and needs: This will help them to provide relevant and effective input and offer implementation support.
  • Implement the WAN optimization solution in a phased approach: Take a phased approach to limit the risk to the network and allow for test and reassurance measures throughout the process. A phased approach will also help identify additional applications that may benefit from optimization.
  • Develop security policies: If not already in place, develop security policies that clearly outline the access and use of data and disposal processes for sensitive information

WAN optimization is a burgeoning technology that can help a wide range of organizations improve the efficiency of their networks, boosting performance and reducing costs. It can also assist companies that seek to enhance their sustainability efforts by consolidating servers and data centers and reducing power consumption and energy bills. WAN optimization is a worthwhile investment yielding recognizable benefits any CIO can appreciate.

Kevin Barrett is a LAN/WAN Specialist at CDW which is a provider of technology solutions for business, government and education. The company offers expertise in designing customized solutions. Areas of focus include notebooks, desktops, printers, servers and storage, unified communications, security, wireless, power and cooling, networking, software licensing and mobility solutions. www.CDW.com


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