WAN to the max

When Southern Cross University (SCU) needed to ensure the availability of its Citrix environment over regular network traffic, the decision was made to upgrade its packet-shaping technology rather than upping the bandwidth.

"Managing a WAN is not just about whacking in bigger pipes," SCU senior network engineer Malcolm Powell told Computerworld. "We have links and link optimization for the size of the link [so] we can prioritize corporate traffic over e-mail and Internet traffic. This ensures our Citrix environment is always responsive."

The university has campuses in the regional NSW cities of Lismore, Tweed Heads, Coffs Harbour, and one campus in Sydney. SCU is no stranger to WAN optimization solutions and has been using packet shaping technology from Packeteer for the past eight years.

"Our Internet bill is $30,000 a month and Packeteer [appliances are] good for monitoring that traffic and for blocking traffic like Napster," he said. "It provides a really effective way of controlling that by going to layer 7 and picking the applications from there."

With three new Packeteer appliances, Powell claims the ROI was less than 12 months.

"It's also a good fault-finding tool. It lets you get a good handle on the type of traffic and to identify what's going on," he said, adding that WAN appliances help with cost accounting between faculties.

When asked about service providers moving into the WAN optimization services space, Powell said because carriers sell capacity and downloads, it's not in their interest to limit bandwidth.

"By managing the WAN optimization in-house we maintain control and can set our own alerts," he said. "For example, this week I discovered that the Internet link was being used at 50 percent due to a Microsoft update. Without the visibility we could have had a huge Internet bill for the month.

Packeteer's ANZ manager Bede Hackney said the company puts network managers "back in the driver's seat" because they have the knowledge of what applications are on their network, [and] how they are performing.

"Organizations where a significant portion of their IT budget is dedicated to bandwidth will see benefits from WAN optimization," Hackney said, adding that the biggest short-term gains flow when WAN upgrades are required because applications are not performing.

The main differences between managing your own boxes throughout the enterprise and using a service provider's WAN optimization solution are management of the devices and access to the devices, he said.

"Ongoing management and upkeep of your WAN optimization policies and configuration will deliver more long-term value from investment - this makes an outsourcing arrangement highly appropriate if an organization doesn't have the skills and or resources internally to manage a solution.

"On the other hand - if an organization does have those skills in-house they can often have more direct access to configuration and reporting statistics by maintaining direct control."

Hackney believes IT managers shouldn't be overly sceptical of the service provider's motives when offering a WAN optimization solution, because "most service providers recognize that they can't continue to be just a bandwidth supplier".

"More and more service providers are looking to become a true partner to their customers and see WAN optimization -- particularly the Layer-7 Visibility portion -- as a way to offer more value and differentiate themselves," he said.

"I do think IT managers need to be somewhat cautious of offerings based wholly on network-level QoS (quality of service) solutions such as MPLS when it is put forward as a complete solution. MPLS (Multi Protocol Label Switching) and other styles of network-level QoS certainly play their part in the overall solution but are not the panacea they are often portrayed [to be]."

Hackney said the ROI for a WAN optimization project will vary depending on the customer's situation, but can be dramatic.

"We have had one large multinational customer that achieved an ROI that paid for their investment in Packeteer in 12 days, because many of their internal users were leaving peer-to-peer applications running and they were getting massive upload charges from their ISP," he said.

On the carrier side, Equant Australia managing director Richard Knott said the company's value proposition for its customers includes the development of a "long-term consultative relationship".

"Developing and implementing WAN optimization strategies that support enterprise policies may often mean selling less bandwidth," Knott said. "Equant WAN optimisation is about maximizing return on investment while improving application performance and therefore user satisfaction."

Equant offers WAN optimization analysis and consulting in addition to operational management.

"All organizations need to ensure application performance through WAN optimization, in particular where companies run a number of different applications of varying critical importance - where it is essential to prioritize the traffic across the network by application type," Knott said.

"Also, companies with geographically dispersed operations, where it is important for both performance and cost minimization to ensure optimum use of bandwidth resources, should be looking to optimization techniques to drive efficiency."

Knott said some of the tools used for applications performance analysis are easy for customers to use themselves; however, the "real value" in using such tools is the analysis of raw data, and the consulting advice on what the data reveals.

"Service providers are also able to provide contractual service levels with levels not often achieved by internal operational groups," Knott said, adding that customers need to select providers that prefer to give pointers on how to save money on bandwidth and improve applications performance.

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