Investment firm taps Blue Coat for network acceleration

Faced with increasing user demand that slowed the throughput on its Web-based IT network, investment company Richardson Partners Financial needed help.

The financial services business in Toronto had chosen to use Web-based applications as much as possible with application service provider (ASP) partners so it didn't have to build a huge infrastructure to connect its headquarters and seven satellite offices. A high priority was to keep the operation lean with desktop PCs that used single sign-ons for its approximately 300 users to gain access to their needed applications.

But by 2005, application performance was becoming a concern, said Andrew McKinney, director of technical services for Richardson Partners Financial.

"The performance issues were raised by users and through our monitoring of the network," he said.

The company, which was started in 2003 by parent James Richardson & Sons, increased its available bandwidth to 5MB redundant lines with its Internet service provider, Bell Canada International. But that was a costly move, prompting the firm to seek other ways of making its hub-and-spoke network architecture more efficient. Last year, IT staffers began looking at network traffic acceleration appliances from Blue Coat Systems and several competitors. It later conducted on-site trials of products from Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Blue Coat and one other vendor.

Initially, Richardson's IT staff looked at caching network traffic so critical business traffic could be given priority for delivery. It also considered filtering bandwidth-hogging streaming media to reduce the network load.

"We realized that once we started testing the units that it would be most important to see how they worked with Secure Sockets Layer-encrypted Web sites," since Richardson data is sent securely, McKinney said. "The acceleration of that kind of traffic, that's what [Blue Coat's] competitors aren't able to do."

While other products accelerated traffic, they were application-specific and didn't help on secure, encrypted sites, he said. "The competitors only allowed acceleration of less than 5% of the traffic, which didn't justify the costs."

Richardson's IT department chose Blue Coat. Before doing so, it regularly saw Web traffic hit the 5MB bandwidth capacity limit, McKinney said. Today, even with all its applications running on the network, bandwidth demands are down to about 1.5MB a day, which saves money and offers much better performance for users. "We think there are further improvements to be found," he said.

The Blue Coat model SG400 and SG800 devices were deployed in February under a phased program, focusing first on bandwidth filtering and caching, said McKinney. Other performance improvements will be added later. So far, the company has found that between a third and half of its network traffic can be cached, he said. The devices provide acceleration, policy control and security for users and allow the company to limit or completely block the use of streaming media by employees.

In the long term, the company plans to buy additional Blue Coat hardware to provide local data caching at its branch offices. That will keep local data from constantly traversing the WAN, boosting network performance even more, McKinney said.

Acceleration technology, said several analysts, is gaining popularity among IT shops.

Joe Skorupa, an analyst at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn., said WAN acceleration technology like Blue Coat's makes up about $US500 million of the $US1.2 billion application appliance business. "People are adopting Web browsers as their standard application interfaces, especially as they push applications out globally, because it makes them easier to customize," Skorupa said. The problem with that approach is that network performance slows as traffic grows.

The biggest challenge has been how to accelerate traffic once it is encrypted, he said, something only a few vendors have done so far. In addition to Blue Coat, start-up Certeon offers encrypted acceleration, Skorupa said.

"Being able to accelerate secure browser [content] is becoming a bigger and bigger deal," Skorupa said, giving Blue Coat an edge over rivals such as Expand Networks, F5 Networks and Juniper Networks.

Jon Oltsik, an analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group said Blue Coat's approach -- caching static information while accelerating dynamic data with priority -- is successful at cutting the size of data transfers while increasing network speed. "This is especially good for companies with large, geographically-distributed remote offices," Oltsik said.

List price for the SG400s is $US4,450, while the SG800 starts at $US7,850, according to the company. The smaller SG200 begins at $US1,995. An improved Version 5 of the software for the devices will be released April 28, including a new MACH5 technology -- Multiprotocol Accelerated Caching Hierarchy -- that includes bandwidth prioritization, protocol optimization, compression, object caching and byte caching for improved performance.

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