WAN-based enterprise applications require a detailed roadmap to create a solid backbone for efficient business
operations. And companies go to great lengths to lay out such a roadmap. Yet despite good intentions and, more importantly, well-conceived plans, there's always the unexpected. This is especially the case when delivering enterprise applications such as Oracle -- including Web-based ERP, JD Edwards EnterpriseOne, and Oracle Forms -- over the WAN.
Network engineers are challenged to deliver optimal performance to end users -- without affecting the business's bottom line -- and contain what might otherwise be exorbitant bandwidth costs.
Guaranteeing Web-based Oracle ERP user experience
An Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) consolidation project at Merial Ltd., a $2.5 billion global animal health company headquartered in Atlanta, took two years of planning before getting off the ground. The goal was to roll out a single instance of Oracle's Web-based Enterprise Resource Planning software (R12) to three main manufacturing sites in North America, France and Brazil and to approximately 3,700 employees, about one-third of whom are Oracle users. The challenge was meeting or exceeding the end users' performance expectations by providing the LAN-like experience to which they were accustomed.
Three years ago, when Milacron Inc., a Batavia, Ohio-based global supplier of plastics-processing technologies and industrial fluids, went looking for a global ERP solution to consolidate disparate systems, it chose a Web-client-based version of Oracle's JD Edwards EnterpriseOne. The company's challenge was to deliver optimal end-user performance of a centralized application to almost three dozen manufacturing plants worldwide while containing network bandwidth costs.
To network engineers, this translates to understanding the application as well as the amount of data that must traverse WAN links, how often and what kind of data is sent over the network, and the protocols being used.
At Merial, user authentication testing of R12 over an Orange Business Systems (France Telecom) MPLS cloud took 120 milliseconds across the site. Similar testing in Brazil and North America was 120+ milliseconds. "The question then becomes: How do we mitigate that and make performance more acceptable?" said Mark Worrel, executive director of global infrastructure at Merial.
Throwing bandwidth at the problem wasn't the solution. The impact of ERP traffic on the WAN wasn't the company's only network concern. Merial runs multiple ERPs and Microsoft Dynamics CRM at 25 locations worldwide. The IT department does log shipping every 15 minutes between data centers for disaster recovery (DR), and the organization's DR site is also used for development, which means that a lot of snapshots of its Oracle database go across the WAN daily.
Merial recently consolidated and outsourced its two North American data centers but continues to manage its applications.
Challenges of WAN-based EnterpriseOne
Management at Milacron was forewarned that running EnterpriseOne over the WAN could result in less than optimal performance. That warning was based on previous experience that application and network engineers had with client-server apps. "We knew the Oracle Web client wasn't as thin as Citrix, but licensing costs of using Citrix were prohibitive," said James Polce, manager of global data communications and operations.
Milacron's plant in Germany was the first plant to run EnterpriseOne. Application performance over a full E1 -- 32 64-Kbps channels or 2.046 Mbps -- for about 250 users was sufficient. At the same time, performance wasn't optimal when EnterpriseOne was delivered to a few dozen users at a plant in Northern India over a 256 Kbps connection. "Going to a 512 Kbps circuit from 256 Kbps would have cost an additional $7,000 per month at the time," Polce said. The company put off making that decision.
Overall, Milacron has 60 WAN connections, or main feeds to the business units, with many feeds coming off the back end to other company locations. Reports of poor WAN performance for other enterprise applications, such as email, were on the rise. For example, with email services hosted out of the U.S., it was taking users in Belgium 25 minutes to open an email attachment.
"As a company, we couldn't spend a tremendous amount of money on EnterpriseOne and not have optimal performance," Polce said. There had to be a backup plan.
Riverbed Technology's Steelhead appliances for WAN optimization weren't available when Milacron selected Oracle's EnterpriseOne but quickly became an option once Polce learned about them.
When proof of concept testing in the lab went well, Polce shipped a unit, which he describes as plug and play, to Germany. "Transactions times went from 17 minutes to 1.5 minutes with WAN optimization," he said. Installation of the Steelhead appliance in Belgium shaved more than 24 minutes off opening an email attachment.
Today, 13 Milacron locations worldwide use a mix of Riverbed appliances. Polce expects to deploy another four units when business levels pick up at those locations. While EnterpriseOne was the driving force for purchasing the Riverbed product, it also enabled Milacron to centralize Exchange at the company's main data center.
WAN optimization was also the solution for better performance at Merial. The company chose Silver Peak System's NX appliances to accelerate application performance and reduce bandwidth costs, but not before proof of concept testing that included one machine hooked to a remote site running R12, stress testing for a single point of failure, and simulation of user traffic from different areas of the world.
Worrel reports that login time was reduced from 1.077 minutes to 0.808 minutes and Oracle Forms access times went from 20 seconds to 11 seconds with WAN optimization. "We're also able to reduce the network database traffic by one-third using WAN optimization," he said.
Merial's North American site went live with R12 in November 2008, with application deployment in France scheduled for May 2009 and a rollout to Brazil planned for 2010. Working with an enterprise architect continues to be instrumental in coordinating application and network infrastructure requirements, according to Worrel.
He cautions that there are a few important considerations for running Oracle over the WAN. One is ensuring that the authentication infrastructure is correctly configured; otherwise it can wreak havoc on network performance.
Another important consideration is to understand the components of R12, such as Web links and forms that go across network links, and to test the components.
"Some applications say they're Web-enabled, but the first time you touch them with a Web browser they have to bring some code down to the laptop or desktop to aid the processing of information. That's no big deal on the LAN, but on the WAN you want to make sure it's as thin as possible," Worrel said. The devil is in the details. Worrel credits a team of ace Oracle DBAs for the company's R12 success.
Polce adds that when optimizing Oracle over the WAN, or any client-server application, it's critical to understand how client/server apps work and to properly configure the client. At Milacron, for example, to get to the database in the AS/400, a Web client must go through IBM's WebSphere.
Accelerating Oracle Forms
The Nevada Department of Correction (NDC)'s new real-time Oracle-based Nevada Offender Tracking Information System (NOTIS) contains security-sensitive and -- in some cases -- life-and-death information that's used by more than 3,000 Nevada state employees dispersed across the state. NOTIS is a Web-delivered Java application that uses Oracle Forms and an Oracle database. Application servers attach to the Oracle database in the data center. The enterprise application manages everything from inmate sentences and facilities occupancy to information about potential threats to the inmate population.
Over the course of an 18-month application rollout period, the network was also being built out. The NDC did not have a mature WAN at the time. At a minimum, the state ran T1 lines to 25 locations. Satellite communications that provide near T1 bandwidth, or 1.5 Mbps, were the only transmission option for connecting an additional seven facilities.
When NDC purchased the enterprise application, it didn't anticipate any problems, although Dan O'Barr, systems and communications manager at the NDC, was unfamiliar with the application architecture and with using satellite links on the WAN. Able to test only one or two users at a time and unable to test 50 concurrent users, he was worried about end-user performance.
He was right to be worried. He ran into the same problem that Merial's Worrel had with Oracle Forms. "The nature of an Oracle Form is that you have to load all data components of the form to the workstation, i.e., files and images," O'Barr said. "For the user, it's painful. When you hit the tab key, it took 30 seconds before the cursor would move to another area on the application."
In a nutshell, user requests to the NOTIS were unacceptably slow. Satellite links provided enough bandwidth, though latency was high and T1 links didn't have enough bandwidth. But on a WAN link, latency would be a non-issue when based on the number of users.
Accessed 24/7, NOTIS required WAN optimization. Even when the availability of T1 lines allowed NDC to get rid of its satellite links, WAN optimization appliances from Blue Coat meant that the NDC didn't have to double its T1 costs.
"We figured we needed about 30 Kbps of bandwidth per concurrent user and less than 150 milliseconds of latency to get acceptable performance," O'Barr said. NDC runs a lean IT shop, with 26 employees and fewer than half a dozen on the application, database and infrastructure management side.
Looking for a solution that was simple with minimal maintenance, NDC opted for a mix of Blue Coat Proxy SG models 200, 510 and 810 and has deployed 23 appliances. "Blue Coat tackles acceleration and also gives us Internet filtering and Internet access control," O'Barr said. NDC also purchased Blue Coat Director for device configuration and policy management.
The WAN accelerators also proved necessary and beneficial for running an in-house developed officer scheduling application, a PostgreSQL client-server application with a Microsoft Access front end. Application performance on the WAN has accelerated by 14 times. And, unexpectedly, O'Barr has noticed acceleration by a factor of eight on his Windows update server.
The lesson NDC learned about running Oracle-based NOTIS over the WAN is first to understand what the application does on the WAN. O'Barr said, "You must analyze how it's talking and how much traffic it puts on the network before you can optimize performance."
About the author: Lynn Haber reports on business and technology from Norwell, Mass.