WAN optimization: Making the business case

WAN optimization promises boosted data throughput and faster network response times. That, coupled with the prospect of saving money, often makes the business case for WAN optimization nearly a no-brainer.

WAN optimization proponents say they see huge increases in data throughput and chop their network response times into fractions. But adding a WAN optimization solution into the network costs money and creates extra up-front work for network engineers. Still, when distance is killing performance, the promise of increased network efficiency is tempting IT departments to investigate what WAN optimization can do for them.

After extensive testing and trial and error, network teams must justify the use of such technologies to the powers that be. But, according to some WAN optimization users and experts, the dramatic results make the argument for spending the money that much more convincing.

Eric Siegel, a Burton Group analyst and WAN optimization expert, has said that boosting WAN speeds is something every company should consider, especially because of the swift results and quick return on investment.

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"Virtually everybody should be looking at these solutions," Siegel said. "They massively improve performance. With these gadgets, not only do you save money, but it makes things possible."

Take, for example, The Sharper Image, which rolled out Juniper's WAN optimization products to speed transaction logs from its San Francisco headquarters to its backup data center in Little Rock, Ark. -- a stretch of about 2,000 miles.

During a recent presentation at the Burton Group's Catalyst Conference, Steve Matsuo, The Sharper Image's senior manager of systems and programming, said that before adding Juniper's WX product into the mix, the company's transaction log streaming rate was up to 25 gigabytes per hour, or 60 megabits per second, roughly two DS-3s worth of data going over a couple of T-1s. The backup site was almost a full day behind headquarters. If the main data center went down, retail outlets wouldn't be able to process gift cards and other transactions, and catalog sales would be delayed.

According to Juniper, the WX acceleration platform uses compression, sequence caching, TCP and application-specific acceleration, bandwidth management, and path optimization to transport files swiftly.

The Sharper Image noticed results almost immediately. That, Matsuo said, was enough to convince the COO that investing in the WX was worth it. In the two years since deployment, The Sharper Image has had no failures, no loss of data integrity and no other problems. The backup site is now less than one second behind headquarters, and bandwidth costs have been reduced by as much as 90%. Matsuo said ROI was quick and obvious, and all it took was pointing out to the COO that the problem was costing more time and money than the solution.

"Feel the pain," Matsuo suggested. "Let them know about the pain. That's how you get the money."

Determine the bottom line
According to Chris Williams, chief marketing and channels officer for Expand, a WAN optimization vendor and maker of the Compass platform, a company should ask itself two key questions before it considers WAN optimization technologies: "Does it make money? Does it cut costs?" If the answers are "yes," he said, that's certainly a convincing argument for the technology.

Businesses can realize even more benefit than initially expected, because a WAN optimization deployment can fuel the adoption of collaborative applications that previously may not have been usable across the WAN. The ability to transfer files and applications in real time is a great business case.

"They can enable classes of applications that weren't available before," Williams said.

Other benefits that can ease making the business case for WAN optimization, according to Williams, include boosted productivity for remote and branch office workers, and organizational improvement. "You can do more with less," he said, and all of that makes the bottom line look much more appealing.

Garreth Taub, vice president of worldwide marketing for WAN optimization vendor Certeon, agreed.

"Applications that ran well on a LAN have not been architected to work well on a WAN," he said, adding that in some frustrating cases, an application that takes 30 seconds on the LAN can reach half an hour on the WAN. "Response time can be abysmal."

Evaluate your needs
But before considering WAN optimization and whether it's worth the investment, Taub said, companies must first determine, "Is it a bandwidth constraint, or is it the fact that you have multiple hops in the network and a chatty protocol creating latency? What problem are you trying to solve?"

Taub suggests evaluating the need in the short and long term and devising a strategy for speeding up the WAN. Then, find out where WAN optimization fits into that strategy.

"Evaluate different technologies," he said. Different WAN optimization technologies have different WAN improvement capabilities. Operating system optimization achieves improvements of two to four times; file size training can boost speeds three to five times; quality of service and packet acceleration can speed things up to five times; and application-specific optimization can realize an increase of up to 30 times.

Chris Majauckas, computer technology manager at Metrocorp Publications -- parent company of Boston Magazine, Philly Magazine and Boston's Weekly Dig -- said the company's need for WAN optimization was clear, but "we still had to sell it to our boss."

Majauckas said his team went to the CFO with several options to reduce print time of files being sent from Pennsylvania to Boston. He said the CFO bought in when Majauckas demonstrated how a box by OrbitalData cut the print time from one hour per page to mere minutes.

Erickson Retirement Communities, which manages more than 30 branch sites, saw similar results. Scott Erickson, the company's CTO, said the organization's network engineers struggled with slow performance because a mix of applications and network traffic was overloading the WAN links' capacity. The company deployed PacketShapers from vendor Packeteer and noticed almost instantaneous results.

Using compression alone, the company saw a 50% reduction in traffic loads per campus without unnecessary bandwidth upgrades, Erickson said. And now the company sees a roughly 95% circuit utilization rate between branches.

"It lets me run the WAN circuits at 95% utilization throughout the day," Erickson said. "As a result, we're realizing a considerable return on investment that has long since paid for itself."

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