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WAN Optimization: Adoption Holds Steady, Despite Advances

The notion of converged services along with distributed workforces and the buzz around private clouds have created a perfect storm of stress on the WAN. Are optimization appliances the answer?

Data loss may be unavoidable on a WAN, but that doesn't mean you have to accept it sitting down. In particular, the increasing volume of voice and video services, enormous digital files, and critical enterprise applications moving across wide area pipes has some IT organizations we work with scrambling to maximize performance.

"Video distribution is a big concern," says Steve Clarke, a senior technical adviser with health benefits provider WellPoint. "I'm constantly getting questions about distributing video internally but have to hold people back because we're afraid of what it will do to the WAN." WellPoint is also interested in improving network performance for a growing number of home workers. Increasing capacity is a possibility, but it's expensive, as is the effort to provision WAN links--and adding more bandwidth is no guarantee of improvement.

These WAN concerns prompted us to take a snapshot of current attitudes toward WAN optimization appliances. In October 2008, 344 business technology professionals responded to our first InformationWeek Analytics WAN Optimization Survey; in February 2010, 585 weighed in. Results show an increasingly mature market, with IT generally accepting the usefulness of the technology but still looking for ways to apply it effectively.

As for drivers, improved client-server application performance is by far the top reason for adopting WAN optimization technology today; it's cited by 74% of the 2010 survey respondents using these products. Because WAN optimization systems use data compression and deduplication to decrease the volume of bits sent over the WAN, applications become more responsive; protocol optimization can also reduce the amount of back-and-forth chatter. Another trend favoring this technology is our growing reliance on WANs to connect geographically dispersed offices and people. Remote users are just as demanding of snappy application response as those in HQ.

Cloud And The WAN

One intriguing question we hoped to answer with this poll is the impact that public cloud services and software as a service (SaaS) will have on WAN optimization technology. IT must control both ends of the network for WAN optimization--clearly not the case in a SaaS or public cloud environment--so we wondered whether these models could derail the growth of WAN optimization technology.

Not so far, anyway. That's mostly because, despite feverish marketing hype, enterprise IT's move to cloud computing has been slow. CIOs are cautious, in part because of concerns over security and highly publicized service failures. Nearly half, 47%, of those poll respondents using WAN optimization say they don't yet use any cloud-based services, while 24% say they expect public clouds will have an insignificant impact in their organizations. A mere 9% say that they'll rely less on WAN optimization as a result of public cloud use.

Short term, we do expect adoption of SaaS to pick up in enterprises. In our November 2009 InformationWeek Analytics SaaS Survey of 281 business technologists, about one-third of the 131 respondents using SaaS describe these apps as mission critical. Tellingly, when we asked who is advocating for SaaS in the enterprise, 54% say line-of-business or C-level execs are driving the decision to buy these services.

Make no mistake though: Pushing a significant volume of data over a WAN to a cloud provider's site will have a negative impact on your network due to increased utilization, and latency will reduce throughput. And extensive SaaS use will place an additional load on the network and may even force companies to buy more bandwidth and reevaluate their overall architectures. While you can't put a WAN optimization appliance on the SaaS provider's site, application acceleration methods, such as caching, might help in some cases.

Now, private clouds are another matter. In our WAN optimization survey, 20% of those optimizing say they're seeing greater demand on the WAN because of private clouds, which does bode well for WAN optimization technology.

Enterprise are also turning to WAN optimization to enable disaster recovery; in our 2010 poll, one-third cited that as a driving reason to use or investigate WAN optimization. An additional 27% say centralized backup services are a goal. But still, of those using or evaluating WAN optimization today, the No. 1 reason, cited by 74%, is to improve client-server application performance.

Is WAN Opt For You?

Given the right mix, this technology can pay off. "We're seeing a six-to-one reduction in traffic over the OC-3," says one survey respondent of his optimization system. What more can you ask? Still, despite the growing importance of wide area links, there's a persistent perception of WAN optimization as a special-use technology. When we asked respondents at companies not optimizing why they don't, 58% said they don't see a need, a slight nudge up from the 54% answering that way in 2008. The same number across both surveys, 21%, say the technology is too costly. Our take: Many enterprises are working to consolidate data centers and other bandwidth-intensive functions like backups, making WAN optimization less critical. And of course, not every application needs to deliver microsecond response times. But the average user's expectation for network performance is increasing, thanks to higher-capacity home broadband and faster LANs at work. Everyone wants more bandwidth, and demand always outstrips supply.

So let's posit that ensuring the availability and performance of vital applications for all employees, no matter where they happen to be working, is a top priority for your team. In some cases, WAN optimization might be the answer. But before you can say for sure, you need to monitor key network, system, and application components because, ultimately, the end-to-end performance is what matters. Overall, consider WAN optimization as one piece of a larger puzzle. Here are three additional areas to consider:

1. Are we committed to unified communications? Applications that require real-time performance, like voice over IP, streaming video, and videoconferencing, continue to consume bandwidth at an unprecedented rate, and there's no sign of that slowing down.

The problem is, unlike with TCP, the UDP-based protocols used for these media don't reduce their transmission rates in the face of a congested network, and they are very sensitive to latency and jitter. Voice calls with less than 100 milliseconds of one-way latency and jitter less than 5 milliseconds are usually deemed acceptable. But as the number of calls increases, quality can quickly degrade. If you plan on enterprise-wide unified communications for a distributed company and are concerned about quality of service, look hard at deploying WAN optimization appliances in tandem with your unified communications deployment.

2. Is desktop virtualization in the cards? As virtual desktop infrastructure becomes more common, latency and jitter will have the potential to kill more than just video and audio streams. Once lots of small packets for keyboard, video, and mouse updates start scuttling back and forth across the WAN, performance will take center stage. If latency is making VDI systems unacceptable for some users, WAN optimization may be the solution. But the problem is often much more complex than VDI vendors admit, and achieving promised performance gains may be an elusive exercise requiring testing with various setups.

3. Are our expectations reasonable? There are no guaranteed performance enhancements with WAN optimization: Success rates will vary greatly from environment to environment. The types of data and applications in use and causes of bandwidth constraints all have an impact. Testing in your environment before committing to a product is crucial.

For WAN optimization to be successful, it's also critical that business and IT leaders agree on the value of the technology. Like any network-wide system, WAN optimization as an element of the enterprise network architecture needs to be discussed and agreed to before anyone cuts a check. Bite off manageable phases of the project, and look to particular applications and segments of the network to optimize, in contrast to a full deployment across the enterprise in one swoop. Given the training needed to take advantage of the more advanced WAN optimization capabilities, as we heard from our poll respondents, it's also important to consider how the system will be supported and the skills needed by internal staff.

Michael Biddick is CEO of Fusion PPT and an InformationWeek Analytics contributor. Write to us at iweekletters@techweb.com

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