Talari Networks surveyed more than 200 IT pros last November and December, and two-thirds said they consider the WAN to be strategic to their businesses to some extent. Where they see it as most strategic is in improving application performance, which is by far the most frequently cited factor driving WAN-related decisions, mentioned by 42% of respondents.
Analysts backed the findings, noting that the profile of the WAN has risen for multiple reasons.
"The WAN has become increasingly important for those organizations that have consolidated their datacenters and need to deliver many of their mission critical as well as other applications to their remote and branch offices over the WAN," Bob Laliberte, senior analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group, said via email.
Meanwhile, Peter Christy, research director at 451 Research, said the push toward more cloud-based apps that can be accessed from mobile devices is making WAN-related issues more visible.
Given the growing role WANs play in determining application behavior, there's clearly work to do, as 14% of respondents to the Talari survey said their WAN causes business-critical application performance to suffer at least one or two times a week, while another 30% say it happens once or twice a quarter. Only 11% said that the WAN never causes application performance hiccups.
Despite this clear evidence that WANs are often dragging down app performance, prioritization of application traffic hasn't kept up. In fact, more respondents (24.2%) say they're making no effort to prioritize applications than are prioritizing dynamically (22.7%), and the largest chunk (43.5%) is prioritizing app traffic statically, which isn't nearly as effective in environments with multiple heavily used real-time apps.
"I don’t think many (companies) understand much about the WAN, so it doesn’t surprise me that the solutions are fairly primitive, by-and-large," Christy in an email.
[Read how a cloud-based WAN optimization service put an end to dropped lines and frozen video for international supplier of gas transport services in "WAN Improves Videconferencing At Shipping Firm."]
What's more, companies aren't always making good use of the WAN technology they do have.
"We have also found that organizations may have a good mix of network connections in place, but do not use them dynamically," Laliberte said.
To make matters worse, the fact that the WAN is holding back so many companies in their efforts to get more agile appears to be chipping away at IT's standing. Respondents to the Talari survey said the two most likely ramifications of apps not performing well are the CIO being pressured from above (44.4%) and IT's reputation being tarnished (43.5%). Loss of revenue came in third at 38.2%, while loss of customers was a distant fifth at 13%.
And yet, it's not as if WAN investment has kicked into high gear. In fact, 46% of respondents said their WAN budgets for the coming year would either stay flat or shrink.
Other research hints at the picture worsening as companies get larger. A recent 451 Research study, which focused more heavily on enterprises with more than $1 billion in annual revenue, found that 63% of respondents expected their overall networking budgets to either decline or remain flat in 2014.