Feature

Rounding up remote offices

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Companies are trying to get rid of as much IT infrastructure in remote offices as possible--with or without technologies to minimize WAN latency.

At Ameren Corp., a St. Louis-based utility company, the drive toward serverless remote offices was a way to improve disaster recovery. "Remote backups weren't working," says Craig Yale, infrastructure specialist III. "Remote backups were a challenge and the entire process was not reliable."

A big user of Microsoft's Distributed File System (DFS), Ameren quickly outgrew Microsoft's DFS management tool and turned to NuView Inc.'s StorageX, which provides a more advanced global namespace and replication. Local tape drives have been removed from most of the company's 50 remote offices, and some smaller sites have just a small server in place or no server at all.

Data files are hosted at the St. Louis data center, which, according to Yale, is fine by users. "The main problem we have is with software running across the WAN," he notes, so Ameren installed low-end print and application servers at several offices with limited bandwidth. The company looked briefly at Cisco's WAFS caching appliance, "but it was too pricey at the time," says Yale.

Schenck Business Solutions in Appleton, WI, didn't use any WAN optimization technology as part of its consolidation initiative, but that may change soon, says VP of IT and CIO Jim Tarala. An accounting firm with 11 offices throughout Wisconsin, Schenck Business Solutions

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has centralized most of its storage across a 20TB IP SAN from EqualLogic, and uses Citrix to run applications in its remote offices. When Schenck evaluated WAFS approximately 18 months ago, it found incompatibility issues between Citrix encryption and WAN compression, says Tarala. Assuming the incompatibilities have been addressed, Tarala hopes to rehome more data on the SAN. "We're trying to foster better collaboration by making data more available firm-wide," he says. "Wherever [an employee] ends up on a day-to-day basis, their data should be available."

For some firms, WAN optimization technologies have been the key ingredient in a successful consolidation strategy. Three years ago, Solutia Inc., a St. Louis-based global chemical corporation with 70 sites, decided to consolidate e-mail servers at 20 of its global sites down to two clusters at a single site in Auburn Hills, MI. "It was to simplify support," says Eric Nichols, VP of IT and CIO. "We had already downsized support a lot and wanted to take one more thing off of [administrators'] plates."

In preparation for the move, Solutia enhanced its network backbone with additional T1 lines at a significant cost. Shortly thereafter, Nichols heard of Riverbed Technology's Steelhead WAN optimization appliances, which worked out so well that the firm took out most of its new T1s. "Riverbed paid for itself in 11 months," says Nichols. And while "Riverbed didn't drive the project, it did make it more successful," he adds.

Despite having a dedicated 6Mb/sec private network linking its offices in the U.S., France and Asia, Silicon Laboratories Inc. decided it would need to put a WAN optimizer in place if users were going to be productive, says Ed Golden, network and IP telephony administrator at the chip designer. Specifically, Golden had measured a delay of approximately 250 milliseconds between its Austin, TX, and Singapore offices. Translated into practical terms, Golden says it took him 6.5 minutes to save a given Excel file over the WAN vs. 5.5 seconds locally.

Silicon Laboratories evaluated technology from Cisco, Expand Networks, Riverbed and Tacit Networks, and settled on the latter. Once installed, Golden found he could save the above-mentioned Excel file in 17 seconds. He also liked Tacit's ability to speed up or consolidate services like DNS, DHCP and Exchange. "We liked that we could roll most of our infrastructure onto a single server that's more of an appliance," Golden says.

Nevertheless, WAN optimization products are still being deployed in small numbers. "You'd be hard-pressed to find a single customer with more than 10 boxes in production," says Rahul Mehta, founder, president and CEO at NuView, which is positioning its StorageX global namespace and data replication product as a complement to WAFS products. There isn't necessarily anything wrong with the technology, but like with anything in IT, "you do a small pilot before you think about deploying it on a larger scale," he says.

That may be because many end users don't believe the technology can possibly be as good as vendors say it is, says Arun Taneja, founder and senior analyst at Taneja Group, Hopkinton, MA. "They say, 'Who are you to tell me that WAN equals LAN?' and have been taking a toe-in-the-water approach."

This was first published in January 2006

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