Building a better SMB WAN: Think bandwidth, resiliency, service levels

Katherine Trost, Contributing writer
When it comes to architecting the WAN, small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) face the same challenge as their larger counterparts: procuring the optimal service and bandwidth to support application requirements while minimizing costs.

SMB WAN requirements vary, from a small office needing nothing more than Internet connectivity for email and Web access to a bigger and more diversified company that routinely moves large amounts of data between locations and to customers. There's no generic approach to solving the challenge of deploying and optimizing WAN services for the SMB.

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The lack of SMB deployment of WAN optimization represents a potential growth market for vendors and an opportunity to reduce WAN operating costs for users.

SMBs may require any or all components of a three-tier network architecture model that defines sites by bandwidth and resiliency requirements:

  • Tier-1 sites (data centers) typically require high bandwidth, high availability, and low latency between two or more locations.
  • Tier-2 sites (distributed offices) require a high level of resiliency but lower bandwidth than Tier 1 locations. Latency requirements vary by application.
  • Tier-3 sites (remote offices) require minimal resiliency and lower bandwidth than Tier-2 locations. As with Tier-2 sites, latency requirements vary by application.
  • Like their larger counterparts, SMBs have a variety of WAN services to choose from. Many service providers now target SMBs with their MPLS services. These offerings include relatively low-speed access to MPLS, including T1 and (more recently) DSL and cable modem access. A key advantage to MPLS-based services at low speeds is that they provide class of service (CoS) capabilities, enabling organizations to prioritize voice and data traffic. Depending on the access circuit, costs are variable. MPLS is increasingly popular. Forty-six percent of SMBs report using MPLS services vs. 58% of the enterprise market as a whole.

    Service providers offer Ethernet access capabilities in a variety of ways: point-to-point circuits, Ethernet WAN services (typically based on virtual private LAN service or VPLS), or Ethernet as an access technology for MPLS VPNs. A growing number of organizations are adopting Ethernet for its ability to offer higher-bandwidth services at lower costs. Availability is not as widespread as MPLS, however, and most VPLS services offer no CoS guarantees for latency-sensitive traffic.

    While service providers offer Ethernet as a high-bandwidth service, SMB uptake is much lower than for the overall enterprise market, with just 27% of organizations using Ethernet vs. 53% of the enterprise market overall.

    Many companies are considering or using Internet-based IPsec and SSL VPNs for connecting to remote users. The primary benefit of such services is that they're available anywhere Internet access exists. Other benefits include security and cost. Often, companies can obtain Internet connectivity for remote sites at $100 per month or less.

    SMB WAN plan checklist

    • Group sites by resiliency and bandwidth requirements.

    • Consider WAN optimization to reduce your bandwidth requirements and gain ability to granularly manage application performance.

    • Determine services based on cost, capabilities and service level guarantees.

    There are two main downsides -- variable performance and the challenge of managing multiple ISPs. Variable performance means the lack of end-to-end QoS capability, as well as the fact that different ISPs adhere to different performance standards. For these reasons, the best fit for Internet VPNs is for truly remote sites, where Internet connectivity is the only option, or for part-time telecommuters, who can go to the office in the event of an outage.

    Services such as evolution data only/evolution data optimized (EV-DO) are also viable alternatives for remote and branch offices. Such services are available nationally from a single carrier, thus eliminating the "multiple-ISP" challenge. Performance is generally consistent, since there's a single provider; but, as with wired Internet links, broadband wireless connections don't provide performance guarantees for latency-sensitive applications.

    Outsourcing WAN services

    When it comes to optimizing the WAN, SMBs are far behind larger organizations. Only 17% of SMBs deploy WAN optimization vs. 64.5% of all organizations. There's a reason for the discrepancy. Many of the organizations deploying WAN optimization are doing so to reduce bandwidth requirements or obtain fine-grained control and management data for business applications. SMBs tend to have less internal management capability and instead often rely on service providers for WAN-performance capabilities.

    Still, the lack of SMB deployment of WAN optimization represents a potential growth market for vendors and an opportunity to reduce WAN operating costs for users.

    Nemertes recommends that small businesses do the following to help ensure a successful WAN strategy:

  • Group sites by resiliency and bandwidth requirements. Many SMBs won't have Tier-1 locations, but some, especially those with extensive storage and bandwidth requirements, may need to design Tier-1 interconnectivity in the same manner as larger organizations.
  • Consider WAN optimization to reduce your bandwidth requirements while also gaining the ability to granularly manage application performance, if those are relevant issues for your organization.
  • Evaluate a variety of services that meet your needs. Determine services based on cost, capabilities and service level guarantees.
  • About the author: Katherine Trost is a research analyst with Nemertes Research. She has expertise in hosted, managed and professional IT services, as well as channel strategies.

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