How remote users change WAN connection and bandwidth requirements

The growth of remote users entering an increasingly virtual workplace is putting stress on WAN connections and bandwidth. How should network technology evolve to meet the demands of teleworkers? Find out in this article.

The growth of remote users entering an increasingly virtual workplace is putting stress on WAN connections and bandwidth. How should IT network technology evolve to meet the demands of teleworkers? Find out in this article.

Those working with wide area networks (WANs) are all too familiar with  conflicting technology trends of today's workplace: Data and applications are increasingly centralized, while those who must access them are increasingly distributed. 

The bottom-line mandate for network and IT managers is to improve performance for remote users, who increasingly want access to new, real-time applications that improve their productivity.

In order to meet this mandate, IT staffs must evaluate WAN bandwidth increases and  optimization tools. Further, they must embrace use of broadband Internet access (with security and risk-management support) to backup, supplement, or replace WAN links. 

The overall branch-office and WAN connection trends, according to Nemertes’ 2010 Communications and Computing benchmark research, are as follows:

  • Branch office growth is resuming after the recession. Nemertes projects the number of branch offices will increase in 2010, with modest growth of 1.75% on average projected going into 2011.
  • WAN bandwidth growth correlates with more employees, not necessarily applications. Branches that are adding more employees will get more bandwidth -- lots more. The average increase among those adding bandwidth is 220% this year and 512% in 2011.
  • More employees work from home, and significant numbers of remote users now have no office on-site anywhere. Supporting telework instead of on-site work is a key part of virtualizing an enterprise. Nearly half of companies now have formal telework policies, and tolerance is low for degraded network or application performance. 
  • Organizations increasingly use the Internet as a WAN connection alternative. Small organizations, global organizations, and aggressive organizations lead the way with Internet VPN and direct branch connections to the Internet.

These trends have resulted in a re-evaluation of WAN connectivity and other IT capabilities to remote workers. Successful companies are making several changes. They realize that to be successful in a virtual environment, employees must have access to collaborative tools, including video conferencing (desktop and room-based), Web conferencing, IP softphones, social-computing tools and public sites, and more. Organizations also are deploying virtual desktops, which decrease dependence on both offices and specific computers by bringing enterprise desktop access to just about any endpoint device (i.e., personal desktop, company laptop, thin client, mobile device, etc.).

Sure, these collaborative applications help supervisors manage their employees, help employees stay connected, and help employees and partners work more productively on projects, and virtual desktops help IT better manage security, access, and application revisions,but from a network point of view, collaborative applications put a huge strain on bandwidth.

As a result, organizations are adding WAN bandwidth optimization tools, which provide capabilities such as bandwidth compression and application acceleration. The benefit is that they extend the life of existing WAN links, resulting in cost-avoidance from not having to increase bandwidth.

The ability to access data and applications, particularly collaborative apps, from anywhere has fueled the increase in telecommuting -- and the use of broadband access to connect the remote worker with the network.

The increase in both telecommuters and branch offices has resulted in more companies using the Internet as either a backup to or replacement for direct WAN connections. About 26.1% of branches are connected to both WAN and Internet -- supporting direct branch-to-Internet access. However, 45% of branches support Internet VPNs. 

Remote users in Internet VPN branches don’t always enjoy direct Internet access. In many cases, the branch is using the Internet only for VPN access back to the organization’s WAN, possibly only as a dormant backup to the primary WAN link, unused except when that link fails. Internet VPNs help enterprises virtualize by reducing the expense of having smaller branches in more remote locations, where consumer broadband may be more readily available than WAN connections. 

However, it shifts significant responsibility for security to the branch, requiring Internet-facing security similar to that deployed in data centers: firewall, intrusion detection and prevention, content filtering and anti-malware, etc. In a “micro-branch” (with 10 or fewer employees) or for teleworkers, IT may have to implement distributed security via endpoint (desktop or laptop) defenses. 

In other branches, distributed security may require unified threat management appliances or other one-box security appliances in order to keep capital and maintenance expenditures under control. As MPLS and carrier Ethernet move further into enterprises, it may also mean increasing use of carrier-based security as a service in the cloud, protecting Internet access through the cloud, direct to each branch.

IT should be prepared to address, with the cooperation of security and risk-management teams, the option of using broadband Internet access as a backup for, adjunct to, or replacement for a WAN link. Traditional WAN connections may simply be more difficult to procure -- and more expensive. That added expense makes redundant WAN links harder to justify compared to a WAN link with an Internet VPN backup, or even a pure Internet branch. And of course, network engineers who use live Internet access at the branch must make sure to address security issues on the spot.

This was first published in December 2010

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