Under pressure

Wide area networking is a critical issue for many regional enterprises, and network managers are constantly looking at how to get the best from their WAN. In the first of two WAN features, NME looks at how optimisation systems can improve an existing network’s performance.

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By  Eliot Beer Published  September 3, 2006

|~|wan200.jpg|~||~|Small populations, spread over a wide geographical area – the nightmare scenario for large enterprises with complex IT infrastructures, and exactly what they face in the Middle East. Organisations with distributed offices – banks, government agencies and retail chains, for example – will all be very aware of the problem of how to keep critical data flowing smoothly across the enterprise. “Users are sending much more rich content over email – often attachments of 3Mbytes to 5Mbytes are common – and the content is getting richer,” says Zakir Lokare, enterprise business manager at Online Distribution. At the same time, applications such as ERP systems, Oracle and SAP among them, are moving more data over the enterprise network. As these applications place more focus on real-time data, the strain on the network grows proportionately. Combined with more email traffic, voice, and increasingly rich internet content, there is little surprise that links struggle to cope. A key factor in the success of WAN optimisation systems in the Middle East is the relatively high cost of broadband links through the telecoms providers – often monopoly providers. Mohamad Abdul-Malak, regional director for Juniper in the Middle East and Africa, says that while this high cost can sometimes make enterprises look at alternative WAN links, it also provides an opportunity for regional telcos to act as resellers for WAN optimisation systems. “When you implement a WAN optimisation system, of course the telecoms companies don’t want to see you potentially decreasing your telecoms bills,” says Abdul-Malak. “But believe it or not, a lot of telecoms companies are carrier resellers of our optimisation systems. The company which really knows that it needs to create services, regardless of how it might affect invoicing, will jump, and partner with us – it feels this is part of its value-added service to its clients. These companies recognise that if they don’t address the issue, a competitor will, and they could lose the customer.” Juniper’s acquisition of Peribit and Redline last year, just one of a clutch of WAN-focused purchases, demonstrates the potential the big vendors see in this space. Companies such as Silver Peak and Blue Coat have also recently introduced WAN optimisation offerings to the EMEA market; the latter built upon its web-caching expertise to develop an enterprise-focused product. “The Middle East organisations are very eager and hungry for the latest technologies available that will help them run their business,” says Ray Kafity, Blue Coat’s general manager for the Middle East, talking about the local demand for optimisation systems. ||**|||~||~||~|“Two things stand out when we speak to customers or potential customers in the region: security, and acceleration. In essence, the customers want to accelerate their branches’ access to the wide area network, but they want to do it in a way that’s secure – they don’t want the connection between remote offices and data centres to be compromised.” Blue Coat’s original pedigree was in internet acceleration systems; Kafity claims that it was in fact customer demand which pushed them to develop a WAN-based solution, using similar techniques to the previous internet systems. He is not alone in depicting high levels of customer understanding and demand, which is perhaps understandable given the dramatic WAN performance increases optimisation vendors claim for their products. Yvonne Cosgrove, director of European marketing at F5, gives the example of a mobile phone operator, working between Europe and Africa: “They need to accelerate a web-based portal they’re using for very remote locations in Africa. The specific line conditions are horrific: they have a 512kbit/s satellite link; they’re experiencing over 600ms of latency; and their packet loss is running at 15% at peak. They have a major file that’s downloaded frequently – it takes 25 seconds to download on their LAN; when they access the same file in Africa, it takes just under 700 seconds. “Using our technology, they are able to deliver that file in 26 seconds over the WAN link. We’re actually delivering them LAN-like speeds over the WAN, with very bad line conditions.” All of the optimisation vendors have similar stories, with figures as high as 800x improvements quoted on a regular basis. While these figures almost certainly are achievable in particular cases, it is not always clear how applicable they are to everyday usage patterns. Many network managers are not too worried about inflated vendor performance claims, which tend to be more realistic when pitched to appropriately qualified staff. “As far as vendor claims go – to get 10x performance for this, or 300x performance for that, you don’t get that much benefit,” says one network manager, who asked not to be named. “Usually, when vendors find you are technically competent, they stop the nonsense – they are very conservative with what they say, before they say it.” Technically, WAN optimisation is becoming more challenging as the types of data flowing over wide area networks shift and diversify. Jeff Aaron, director of product marketing at Silver Peak, says that point solutions are no longer economically effective for organisations with diverse data types. “For WAN acceleration to be cost effective, it must have applicability across a wide range of applications,” Aaron says. “Point products, such as file caching (eg, WAFS) and email caching, are often cost prohibitive because they have limited focus. For WAN acceleration to be truly strategic, it must work across a wide range of applications, from bulk applications, such as file, email and web, to real-time services, such as voice and video.”||**|||~||~||~|Real-time data such as voice and video poses a particular problem for optimisation systems. Because the data is already highly compressed, applying more compression to these packets simply delays their transmission without reducing their size. For this reason, many vendors are starting to put emphasis on packet recognition capabilities, which can allow voice traffic, for example, to flow straight through an acceleration system without any processing. Encryption and proprietary protocols also have the potential to fox WAN optimisation systems; if the product cannot see inside the packets from a particular application, the best it can do is to apply generic compression, potentially leaving in large amounts of extraneous data. For encrypted data, even normal compression may not be possible. Vendors such as Blue Coat claim to be able to get past encrypted data, so bringing much more of its technology to bear on those packets. The other route vendors can take is to work with the major software players to gain access to their protocols. One example is the Packeteer system’s ability to work with SAP. Users have reported around a three- to four-times improvement in bandwidth consumption. For network managers, though, the important thing is to understand how their organisations will use the network, in order to make the best choice among WAN optimisation vendors, says Online’s Lokare. “IT managers need to know exactly what different applications are being run across the WAN – this is a key challenge,” he says. “Most of the vendors are addressing optimisation at different network layers; some have layer 7 systems, others believe it is better to look at layer 3 onwards. But if you know what sort of data will be on the network, you can apply the relevant techniques for that data.” These issues with encrypted, compressed or proprietary data make choosing a WAN optimisation system not just a matter of working out which will suit a network today, but also further down the line. If an organisation is planning to change ERP vendors - or embark on a big upgrade - then the network manager may need to check the new version is supported. In the same way, systems should be able to handle voice traffic if a VoIP implementation is on the cards. Next month: WAN link technology.||**||

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