The private MPLS network, which serves the company's more than 30 branches with a 3 Mbps WAN link, connects to the main data center in Baltimore. Network engineers were struggling with slow performance because the mix of applications and network traffic was overloading the links' capacity. The pipes needed to push applications such as Centricity, a medical record system, and ERP and CRM systems such as JD Edwards, Siebel and PeopleSoft without clogging the pipes. Erickson Retirement Communities also has an extensive wireless network in which clinicians can use PDAs to upload and record patient information.
That, coupled with Erickson's relaxed atmosphere, which within reason allows employees to surf the Web, was causing major WAN hang-ups.
"We've always been hands-off with the monitoring, Big Brother kind of thing," said Scott Erickson, Erickson Retirement Communities' CTO.
But when the company introduced an electronic medical record system involving resource-intensive applications, he said, "performance became a constant battle for us."
The company had a few choices: Throw bandwidth at the problem, stop allowing Web use that wasn't work related, or take a completely different tack.
He said that he came across Packeteer's PacketShaper solutions. According to Packeteer, PacketShaper compresses applications over the WAN while also integrating QoS and other functionality.
"Because we're operating a medical-grade network with highly sensitive data consisting of complicated patient healthcare information, we need to constantly prioritize traffic…." Erickson said. "Allowing our employees to surf the Web or check email is a perk we can live with because PacketShapers are unique in suppressing any recreational traffic from compromising our strategic application performance."
Erickson Retirement Communities also uses Packeteer's PolicyCenter to maintain control over traffic priorities, he added. For example, time-sensitive mobile patient care information always takes precedence over casual Internet access.
Through compression alone, the company achieved a 50% reduction in traffic loads per campus, Erickson said, without unnecessary bandwidth upgrades.
Although he was hesitant about running circuit utilization beyond 70% of capacity on the MPLS network with Cisco routing gear, Erickson said, the company now has roughly 95% circuit utilization rates.
"It lets me run the WAN circuits at 95% utilization throughout the day," he said. "As a result, we're realizing a considerable return on investment that has long since paid for itself."
Erickson Retirement Communities first rolled out PacketShapers in 2001, and in 2003 the company went from three shapers to one at every campus. It is on course to install three new PacketShapers each year to keep up with demand.
"The value proposition is better if there's a box on either side of the WAN circuit," Erickson said.
The company still adds bandwidth annually to accommodate growth, Erickson notes, but it is not simply to boost application performance and speed on the WAN.
PacketShapers have also helped Erickson Retirement Communities plan for increased network capacity, something it had never done in the past. Planning ahead helps Erickson and his team budget for network changes.
"We've historically been very reactive in how we budget for bandwidth increases and other things," he said. "Now we're able to get some really solid predictions over time on the bandwidth needed at any level."