Carhartt's network optimization plans tailor-made for MPLS, virtualization

WAN optimization and design is easy when you have one or two locations, a reasonably predictable data traffic and applications load, and can live with a few activity reports pumped out every week or so. It gets a bit harder when you are a global company implementing virtualization and MPLS to divisions spread out across multiple international locations.

WAN optimization and design is easy when you have one or two locations, a reasonably predictable data traffic and applications load, and can live with a few activity reports pumped out every week or so.

It gets a bit harder when you are a global company with divisions spread out across multiple international locations and your bandwidth demands can be as challenging as the industry you serve, especially when you have implemented MPLS and you are planning on virtualized domains. That is the basic scenario at Carhartt, Inc., a 120-year-old manufacturer of premium work clothing that makes

"The toughest challenge was convincing management to get approval for the anticipated budget. Otherwise, it was not too difficult to convince them of the need."
Asif Khan
Network AnalystCarhartt, Inc.

 everything from work boots and cargo shorts to flame-resistant shirts and jackets.

Four or five years ago, the still privately owned and managed company decided to consolidate all of the different servers it had in roughly 17 locations in the U.S., Europe and Mexico and adopt a centralized IT framework that brought most everything together at its Dearborn, Mich., headquarters.

Despite consolidation, however, it became increasingly difficult to apply patches and provide software updates to the satellite sites (10 of which were in the U.S.) and satisfy the rising demands for bandwidth, explained Asif Khan, Carhartt's network analyst.

As a result, some locations opted for additional T1 communications lines, which were not only expensive but took time and coordination as circuits were switched in and out and services upgraded, Khan said.

Putting more zip into TCP connections

To solve the problem, Carhartt started looking at a variety of optimization appliances to be deployed at its branch offices and manufacturing sites. The vendors in the running included Cisco, Riverbed Technology, and Checkpoint Software (now partnering with Riverbed on security solutions); all of which had optimization products.

What's up Carhartt's network sleeve?
-  Installing a network management console
 
-  Virtualized domains at remote locations - Virtualized firewalls for remote security

-  Expanding MPLS services
 
-  Building out VoIP trial

The company decided on Riverbed because of its plug-and-play integration capability, user-friendly interface, and ability to churn out all sorts of reports that provide a clear picture of what is happening as traffic zips over the WAN. Carhartt had also installed a competing product at two of its locations as a test, but the company was turned off by the level of complexity.

"The toughest challenge was convincing management to get approval for the anticipated budget," said Khan, who has been with the firm for about two years. "Otherwise, it was not too difficult to convince them of the need."

To get the project rolling, Riverbed loaned Carhartt two Steelhead 1050 appliances, each capable of handling between 800 and 2,300 optimized TCP connections, depending on the configuration. Carhartt spent two to three weeks testing these systems at headquarters, using a stopwatch to measure the increased speed across various applications. Since up to 75% of the data flowing through the network is messaging API (MAPI) and SIP traffic, the appliances deliver a significant boost in speed, Khan said.

His team also received some very positive feedback from about 25 users from different departments and groups in the company. This was important, given the company's IT staff of about seven or eight people and an employee base of roughly 3.500 workers. Dreaming of virtualized domains

The trial period was successful, although Carhartt shipped back the loaned system because it didn't have the budget to support an immediate and full launch. Since that time, the company has deployed about 12 Riverbed appliances and has experienced a 40% reduction in traffic on the WAN, with download times in most cases slashed by about two-thirds. The biggest measure of success, though, comes from the users who are happy with the improved performance of applications over the network. "If you don't hear from them," Khan said, "then everything is fine."

Like most network administrators, Khan is thinking months in advance in terms of upgrades and enhancements, even though the current optimization solution is more than adequate. Plans in the works include deploying virtualized domains at each location in place of a physical domain controller; virtualizing firewalls to beef up security; and tweaking the MPLS services, installed about six months ago. Carhartt also dabbles in VoIP, Khan noted, with initial installations at headquarters and one remote site.

Carhartt's IT director, who worked a dozen years at EDS before joining Carhartt, also has his eye on some type of management console that would let him easily monitor the network activities at each and every location to supplement reporting functions and put a more real-time spin on his administrative duties.

"I get enough detail to see what's going on and can look at the general makeup of traffic," Khan said. "But this doesn't tell me which websites users visited and things like that. You need other tools to look at things like that."

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