Baggage handler uses WAN optimization to convey data

Companies that make baggage-handling systems can have just as much trouble as your average traveler when it comes to getting something to its destination, even when it's data.

That's why G&T Conveyor Co., which has baggage-handling systems in more than 400 airports on three continents, started using a WAN optimization appliance from Riverbed Technology at remote sites to help it communicate with its main office. The Riverbed Steelhead WAN optimization appliances have saved the company money and greatly increased its data transfer speeds.

The issue for G&T surrounds its use of a "portable office" of sorts that comes with a mini data center that sends data to remote sites for 12 to 18 months while the company installs new baggage-handling systems at airports, according to George Tilmon, supervisor of IT operations. The portable office has a firewall, switches, and other hardware, as well as the Steelhead appliance.

"The problem we were trying to solve was collaboration," Tilmon said. The company has to send large AutoCAD mechanical engineering files and project schedules from project management applications such as Microsoft Project or Primavera from Primavera Systems.

"The challenge was that project managers on-site in remote locations were being challenged keeping management informed because of a delay," Tilmon said.

G&T uses two sizes of the Steelhead appliance, with the two US$5,500 models in Dallas and Tavares supporting T1 lines and a US$3,500 model in Minneapolis supporting a DSL connection, Tilmon said.

The Steelhead devices are saving G&T time and money in several ways. For one, it has been able to reduce the bandwidth required to transmit data between his sites. For example, in Tavares and Dallas, G&T has dual T1 lines, at US$500 to US$800 per month, while Minneapolis, with the Steelhead appliance, is using DSL at US$100 to US$150 per month. "That's an immediate savings we can see," he said.

In addition, the devices require less maintenance, which means less travel for the IT staff, Tilmon said. "I don't have IT staff at all the sites," he said. "Minneapolis doesn't have anyone. If there's any issues, someone has to physically go up there" -- a trip that typically costs US$2,000 every quarter.

Prior to turning to the WAN optimization appliances, G&T tried several other methods to improve data transfer speeds, such as implementing an FTP server, using e-mail and simply keeping multiple copies of files, but it ran into version control problems, Tilmon said.

Tilmon said he also looked at a virtual workplace implementation from Citrix Systems but decided that it was too expensive. He tried the Steelhead WAN optimization product on the suggestion of one of his local vendors. After testing it for a few weeks, he installed it a couple of months ago at three of his sites: in Dallas, at the headquarters in Tavares and at a remote site in Minneapolis.

Tilmon is now thinking about expanding the WAN optimization project to some of his other 29 remote offices, starting with Seattle and a collocation facility in Orlando. The devices also enable him to consider being able to centralize his data centers again after pushing resources such as mail servers and file servers out to remote sites to improve performance. "The advantage would be twofold: allow us easier administration of it, including enforcing standardization, and in version control and collaboration," he said.

Tilmon cautioned that there are limitations to the Steelhead devices. For one, they don't increase performance of transactional databases such as Microsoft's SQL Server and Oracle's offering, which the company uses for ERP functions such as timekeeping and payroll and for proprietary software associated with G&T's product. "Where we noticed improvement was with flat files," he said.

Tilmon is also looking forward to support for mobile users. Because the functionality is currently enclosed in a device, "a mobile user in a hotel room cannot take advantage of the technology," he noted.

The Steelhead devices have also led to a reduction in user complaints in the offices where they're installed. "I'm still hearing and seeing help requests associated with WAN performance at the sites that don't have devices," Tilmon said. "The metric we use for success is, if users aren't complaining, we must be doing something right."

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