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Limited broadband availability abroad challenges WAN connectivity

Jessica Scarpati

Limited broadband availability in emerging markets often makes wide area network (WAN) connectivity expensive, unreliable or simply unavailable. Unfortunately for network engineers at large enterprises, CEOs and chief financial

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officers often focus more on cheap land and labor in developing countries than they do on concerns about WAN connectivity.

Networking pros tasked with providing WAN connectivity in developing markets do have options. Instead of settling for overpriced and subpar performance, they can deploy technology that reduces their bandwidth needs or use wireless networking as an extension cord for the WAN.

As global enterprises outsource to Asia, Latin America, Africa and Eastern Europe, they may find that certain parts of those regions have plenty of broadband access. But if a company needs to set up a production facility outside of a major urban area, there could be trouble.

"If you have production facilities, they're not in Beijing or Mexico City. They're out in the field because that's where it's cheap, and the problem with 'out in the field' is that [those regions] have very bad infrastructure," said Claus Schroeder, managing director of Enterprise International, a systems integrator based in Munich, Germany. "Reliability is also an issue. Sometimes the lines have a lot of downtime, and when you work remotely, you can't work at all [if WAN connectivity drops]."

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As an example, Schroeder referred to his work with Kiekert, a German manufacturer of car door locks. Distance and slow connections made it tough for users in plants in China and Mexico to collaborate with engineers in Kiekert's Heiligenhaus, Germany, headquarters.

Users in the remote locations complained it took too long to access large engineering files, but adding more bandwidth where so little exists was too expensive, he said. For companies used to doing business in broadband-rich regions of Europe and the United States, it can be a common and frustrating problem, Schroeder said.

"A lot of companies in manufacturing that have outsourced to [emerging markets] -- Mexico, China, Poland, Hungary -- outsource production and then get problems with the [WAN] connection," he said. "It's very expensive to rent a high-end line, so you outsource to save money but reinvest it in IT infrastructure."

WAN optimization, server mirroring aim to improve poor WAN connectivity

Enterprises look to WAN optimization products to get the most out of their existing bandwidth by compressing, caching and shaping data, as well as improving how the network handles applications with chatty protocols. Vendors include Riverbed Technology, Blue Coat Systems, Silver Peak and Cisco Systems.

The deployment typically requires hardware on both ends of the link -- the data center and the branch office -- and can often deliver four- to five-times faster speeds without adding bandwidth.

But WAN optimization controllers often cost tens of thousands of dollars. Most run on proprietary hardware, but some vendors -- Blue Coat, Silver Peak, Expand Networks and Certeon -- have developed virtual versions of their software to run on any standard virtualized server.

Other vendors take more of a software-centric approach to mitigate limited broadband availability -- though just for file sharing. Peer Software Inc., a data backup vendor, has been marketing its server mirroring software for the past five years as an alternative to WAN optimization controllers.

Peer's product, PeerSync, locally caches content on a standard server through headquarters and branch offices and automatically updates all copies across the WAN within a second of closing a file, according to Jimmy Tam, general manager at Peer Software.

The software locks the file while it's in use and until the update is complete, Tam said. Because PeerSync copies only changes to documents that are then accessed locally at LAN speeds, the WAN isn't so taxed with remote users downloading full copies from a data center thousands of miles away, he said.

Kiekert, the German car lock manufacturer, recently deployed PeerSync at its five locations around the globe after comparing the costs of buying more bandwidth or a WAN optimization device, said Schroeder. An average deployment costs between $3,000 to $4,000, Tam said. Enterprises pay per site for the software license.

Peer also works with Fujifilm, which uses its server mirroring software to improve WAN connectivity between its Los Angeles data center and a branch office in Sydney, Australia, Tam said. Although Australia doesn't have limited broadband availability problems, bandwidth is sold by only two companies and was too expensive for the company to build a data center there, he said.

"The fastest access to information? It's always going to be local," Tam said.

Wireless WANs a solution to nonexistent or limited broadband availability?

Broadband infrastructure in some parts of the world is so underdeveloped that connectivity may not even reach where enterprises want to outsource. Telecom operators may not be able to trench fiber in dense urban areas that have experienced rapid growth, including parts of India and China, nor see any value in extending connectivity to rural regions.

To bridge the last mile between a remote office and broadband availability, wireless WANs are also an option.

Wireless LAN vendor Aruba Networks recently purchased Azalea Networks, a Chinese outdoor mesh WLAN vendor, for its intelligent routing, multiple radios and peer-to-peer approach to mesh, according to Mike Tennefoss, head of marketing at Aruba.

Unlike meshing traditional wireless access points (APs), Azalea's devices use Layer 3 routing to mitigate packet loss and dropped frames between hops, Tennefoss said. Four radios reduce interference, and its APs also detect the most efficient route and communicate directly with each other, as opposed to hopping back to a central controller, he added.

"In a rural environment, where the closest wide area connection or DSL connection might be in a nearby town, you would use the mesh technology [to bridge the links]," Tennefoss said. "It's not unusual to be able to go six miles, or 10 kilometers, in each hop as you're transmitting."

Enterprises with remote offices in developing countries can use point-to-point radios using microwave or 802.11 wireless technology, according to Steven Glapa, director of business development for WLAN vendor Ruckus Wireless.

For WAN connectivity, local telecom operators will usually set up the point-to-point radios to bridge the last mile between an office and its closest access to fiber, Glapa said. For local connections between two offices, enterprises can set up the Ruckus radios themselves using unlicensed spectrum in the 5 GHz range for about $1,500, he said.

Glapa contended that meshed APs can usually only cover a few hundred yards, recommending point-to-point for multiple kilometers. Although Ruckus has bridged WAN connections with its point-to-point radios as far as 25 kilometers, Glapa said most enterprises achieve 100 Mbps across one to 12 kilometers.

Wireless WANs have their limits -- be it distance, performance or line or sight problems, both vendors acknowledged. But for enterprises with limited broadband availability near remote offices in India or China, wireless can be a cost-effective means of connectivity, they said.

"If someone's looking for a 10 Gigabit pipe to their building, you're probably not going to want to do that with wireless -- ours or anybody else's," Glapa said. "The 10- to 100-gig speeds are what you do over optical fiber. Wireless doesn't really have that much of a roadmap around those, but 1 Gig is something we can see around the corner."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, News Writer


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