How to avoid branch-office network overload

Forrester Research report addresses challenges network executives face in consolidating branch-office technologies

When it comes to consolidating infrastructure and centralizing services, enterprise network executives face a Catch-22 of sorts. As they work to reduce costs and complexity in data centers and corporate networks, many network executives find their efforts have introduced more expense, equipment and management woes at branch-office locations.

"Enterprise are facing a dilemma: How can they increase services like storage, security, communications and application services while trying to consolidate infrastructure and decrease costs?" ponder Forrester Research analysts in an October report called, "The Evolving Branch Office: Intelligently Reducing Your Network Infrastructure Footprint".

The recent report addresses the challenges network executives face today and advises how over the course of a few years they could consolidate branch-office technologies with some planning. Network executives today deploy routers, switches, wireless access points, security devices, file-sharing accelerators, WAN optimization appliances, IP communications infrastructure (for instance, IP PBX and VOIP products) and servers for management and other purposes. Forrester estimates the technology requirements could have network managers putting as many as 10 boxes in a branch office to address basic needs.

"To date, most firms have deployed numerous point products to solve these woes tactically," the report reads. As more companies consolidate data centers (51 percent of more than 1,000 firms polled by Forrester in 2005 said infrastructure consolidation would be a top priority in 2006), network executives must also consider consolidating branch-office technologies going forward. The research firm debates if there will ever truly be a vendor delivered "branch office in a box" (or BOB for short) and how today's critical branch office technologies can be consolidated.

"Recent technology advancements will streamline infrastructure requirements by consolidating numerous functions -- [such as] routing, wireless connectivity, security, application acceleration, IP telephony, IP address management and remote monitoring -- into fewer appliances," the report reads.

While Forrester analysts say they doubt one vendor will provide the ultimate BOB, "depending on the branch profile, firms can intelligently collapse similar services -- like security with routing and communications, as well as storage with application acceleration -- to reduce the management burden and still offer full-service sites."

And, the analysts say, network executives can begin now with a three-stage approach that should be addressed over three to four years.

To start, the firm advises network managers to invest in and deploy appliances that consolidate similar services today, focusing on connectivity, security and acceleration. That means combine routing, switching and Wi-Fi functionality, deploy a unified-threat-management (UTM) device, couple wide-area file services (WAFS) technologies with WAN optimization tools.

"This will cut down branch infrastructure into five svelte components rather than the original 10 or more," Forrester analysts predict.

Second, Forrester suggests "embracing evolving standards such as IPv6 and SIP," which will enable network equipment to "easily handle the combined functionality without performance degradation." The technologies could be folded into a next-generation branch router that could combine security, communications and remote monitoring and management devices, the research firm says.

Lastly, network managers should integrate acceleration technologies, which would combine responsibilities of the network services and application teams into fewer technologies. Forrester says that aggressive enterprise companies are consolidating these functions across IT groups, but that among many other factors, the corporate culture will dictate how soon this level of consolidation will be attainable by many companies.

"We believe it's at this final stage, starting in two years, where the next generation of secure communications routers will be able to effectively fold in caching, compression, protocol acceleration and traffic management tools needed to form this final branch-office-in-a-box solution," the report reads.

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