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| WAN acceleration appliances are a much less expensive way of increasing bandwidth for remote sites than buying beefier transmission lines.
High on Thomas Fenady's priority list at Activision Publishing Inc. has been improving file-transfer speeds for traffic over the WAN. Fenady is senior director of IT at the Santa Monica, CA, video entertainment company, which publishes coveted titles such as Guitar Hero, the game that gives everyone a chance to rock like Jimi Hendrix.
While the main data center is at the company's California headquarters, Activision's IT users are spread across 67 offices on four continents. In Fenady's favorite example of how an international video entertainment firm can pummel its network, the Dublin, Ireland-based testers and designers working on Call of Duty routinely generate approximately 200GB of data each day.
That's because the video game, which lets players fight World War II armies, is published in 16 languages.
"We'd be sending an 8gig file 16 times," explains Fenady. "We were getting 3megs per second on an E3 line, and we were able to tune that to get about 8megs per second." Then Activision joined a growing list of companies using WAN optimization products as a way of improving business continuity and application performance. With Riverbed Technology Inc.'s Steelhead appliance, says Fenady, "we started getting about 34megs per second. We were filling up the pipe."
Activision has about 7,000 users (a number that tripled recently after the firm merged with Vivendi Games to form Activision Blizzard). His users "don't see a jump from 8megs to 34megs," says Fenady. "What they see is a game-build transfer that could take eight hours before and now takes 30 minutes."
The need to improve application response times is just one of the factors driving the WAN optimization market, which grew out of the old wide-area file services (WAFS) sector. Interest is currently being stoked by the following IT trends, each of which is inexorably linked to both network and storage systems.
"The standard approach [to accommodating increased WAN use] is to overprovision the amount of bandwidth you need," he says. But purchasing more bandwidth can be very expensive. According to Whiteley, a company with an international E3 line going into Bangalore, India, for example, might pay up to $40,000 each month for a private link. But WAN optimization products, for a fraction of that cost, reduce bandwidth costs by reserving bandwidth for priority traffic and using data-reduction technologies.
"The bad news is that [WAN optimization] is still a nascent technology, so it comes with limitations," says Whiteley. These products require plenty of initial testing and careful deployment to avoid problems with reliability and scalability, he adds. "You can't just pick the vendor you have the best relationship with or the one with the best price." (See "What to test," below.)
Getting the most out of a WAN optimization product, says Fenady, comes down to deciding how to deploy it. The leading WAN optimization vendors support two classes of deployment: in-path and out-of-path (see "In-path vs. Out-of-path WAN optimization," below).
In-path deployments require placing the WAN device between the switch and the router. The appliance is inserted in-line between the WAN router and the Ethernet switch on the LAN side of the network. Out-of-path deployments require reconfiguring routers, and appliances are deployed in each office of a distributed enterprise network, typically behind the WAN router. Fenady chose to deploy his Riverbed appliance in-path, he says, "since the Riverbed has a failover pass-through. If the unit dies, there's no network interruption; we tested this extensively."
The leading WAN optimization vendors support both classes of deployment, and customers choose their deployment based on infrastructure, preferences, traffic flow, and the number of users and branch offices. When Cisco first introduced its WAN optimizer product, it was offered in only out-of-path deployments. Mark Weiner, Cisco's director of market management for data center solutions, says the company's Wide Area Application Services (WAAS) software (that's loaded onto an appliance) is now offered in-path as well in response to customer demand.
Jeremy Gill is CIO at Pittsburgh-based Michael Baker Corp., a survey and engineering firm with 4,200 employees and a network that supports 50 domestic and eight international offices. The company, whose work includes flood-plain mapping for federal agencies like FEMA, ran into a problem after it deployed the ProjectWise content management app. At the same time, Gill was concentrating on consolidating 15TB of corporate data to a main site. "As that data center grew and we consolidated file servers, we realized we were going to have to increase our WAN acceleration," he says. Gill had a "ton of Cisco ISR router lines," so choosing Cisco's WAN optimization product and deploying it out-of-path made sense to him.
Gill is an IT veteran who was never crazy about the WAFS products of yesteryear. "To be honest," he says, "I'm not a fan of file acceleration. If there's a piece of hardware that will do it, I'd rather do it at the hardware level." In the end, Gill wound up with the kind of WAN optimization ROI he was looking for: $4,000 in monthly bandwidth savings, increased remote-worker billable hours and centralized storage.
Early on, Gill was unhappy with Cisco's reporting tool, but he says the company has made strides in recent releases. "There are more out-of-the-box reports now compared to us having to pull the data and run our own manipulation of it," he says. "That was taking 20 hours a month." But the numbers, he notes, are impressive. A six-month snapshot showed ProjectWise accelerated by 60%. Gill is also looking forward to the improved video streaming in Cisco's most recent release, he says. In the older version, all 20 users in a remote office would receive their own video stream, sent across the WAN from the media server in the company's main data center. A newer version of WAAS pulls only one stream from the media server, which is then sent to the 20 users from the WAAS device in a remote office. In the case of small WAN links, such as T1, which a lot of Gill's remote offices use, "it can't support a stream of 20 users at 384K, but it can easily support one," explains Gill. "That will help us significantly. We have folks in remote offices, logging into Web-based meetings, that kind of break the bandwidth when it comes to video."
Jeff Post is network manager at EDC Inc., an international nonprofit that does work in 35 countries, and has programs ranging from health care to education and grassroots economic initiatives. For Post, that means heavy WAN use, especially between the nonprofit's three regional offices in Newton, MA; Washington, D.C.; and New York City.
Post became a Silver Peak Systems Inc. customer in February when EDC began a data center consolidation project. "Our need [for a WAN product] came when we outgrew our space, power and HVAC supply," says Post.
Reducing WAN traffic
EDC is mostly a Cisco shop, but Post says he was open to various WAN vendors when he began looking at WAN optimization products; Post says the Cisco product he tested didn't work so well with the 200 or so Macs in his shop. In the end, he chose Silver Peak and says "they didn't accelerate my Mac traffic either, but they didn't break it"; Post also says Silver Peak told him more Mac capabilities are on its roadmap.
Damon Ennis, Silver Peak's VP of customer support and product management, says Silver Peak's Mac acceleration was limited at the time to a certain feature. "We were able to accelerate file copies, but we weren't able to accelerate what we call directory browsing specifically for Apple Macs; that has since been remedied," he explains. Cisco's Weiner says the firm has plenty of customers using Cisco's WAAS for Macs; he noted a recent enhancement to Cisco's WAAS, an HTTP adapter that aids Mac traffic.
Post chose an out-of-path deployment, and reconfigured his Cisco Catalyst 3750 series switches for policy-based routing so they would send data to the Silver Peak appliances. "We didn't consider doing it in-path," he explains. "We have tried, as much as possible, to not have a single point of failure in our network design. We have two switches in each location handling the routing of the data. I feel the out-of-path deployment offers more flexibility."
Post chose to implement policy-based routing (PBR) redirection so the appliance intercepts only those packets that have been redirected to it. It accelerates traffic flows that match its Access Control Lists (ACLs); all other traffic passes through the appliance unmodified. But Post's policy-based routing rules were too broad at the outset, which posed a problem. "Originally, we said we wanted everything to go over it. Well, if you send everything, you wind up sending a lot of things you never intended to, such as print jobs from remote offices," he says. "Now we just lock down the IP ranges that [print jobs would send to]."
Product competition heats up
Riverbed boasts the ability to decrypt Secure Sockets Layer (SSL)-encrypted traffic, and Forrester ranked it highest overall last year for optimization techniques. Silver Peak, which received high marks for its scalability in Forrester's Q3 2007 market report, is making that a cornerstone of its product pitch, and company executives say their roadmap includes larger appliances and the ability to handle an even larger data stream.
However, users are discovering some pockets of trouble when it comes to implementing WAN optimization products and scalability tops the list, says Forrester's Whiteley. "Does it process enough TCP flows? Does it have enough on-board disk capacity? It's not just about megabits per second," he says. In general, WAN optimization products scale out (the number of devices that can be interlinked) and scale up (the amount of optimized throughput each appliance can process).
"You should test solutions that support the right throughput on the WAN connection with all of the optimization techniques turned on," says Forrester's Whiteley.
Another problem can be reliability or backing up the box, he says. "Some companies are getting burned by the fact that there aren't modular components; they aren't hot-swappable," he says. In one example, a Toronto company with Bangalore, India-based developers discovered it had reached 80% WAN bandwidth utilization, "which is almost catastrophic" says Whiteley. The company installed WAN optimization appliances on either end for reduction in overall traffic and cut its WAN bandwidth utilization to approximately 40%. That worked out great ... for a while.
"Over time, that utilization crept back up to 60%," says Whiteley. The "creeping" of utilization--in this case, from 40% to 60%--is very common, he adds.
But without the WAN appliance, the firm is operating at 120% of link capacity and must be prepared in case the appliance fails by installing "high-availability pairs or trying to get solutions with higher reliability like modular hardware, in-service upgrades and hot-swappable components," says Whiteley. (That's the strategy Gill at Michael Baker Corp. applied.) Riverbed's Saldich says users don't need to back up every box with another. "Let's say you have 100 branches," he says, and one big box in the data center. "If the one in the data center is deployed serially or in parallel, that's a pretty reliable deployment," adds Saldich.
Prices for WAN optimization products vary depending on network size and the number of sites. A good starting point is approximately $50,000 for a major location such as your data center, and $15,000 to $20,000 for branch sites (pricing for remote locations vary).
Brian Babineau, senior analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group, Milford, MA, predicts that WAN optimization products will be priority budget items for IT shops this year and next. The cost of buying more bandwidth, at a time when IT shops are under increasing pressure to restrict expenses, makes WAN acceleration products easy to rationalize, he explains.
"We've talked to a lot of people who have purchased WAN optimization solutions and we haven't had one of them say 'Hey, this stuff didn't work out for us,''' says Babineau. "That's pretty unusual. A quick ROI is what counts right now."