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Consolidating remote offices

Storage magazine and Taneja Group conducted a survey of 254 IT professionals with responsibility for remote-/branch-office (ROBO) management and planning. Our research reveals that while 70% of respondents now view ROBO as central to business operations, there are still many areas of uncertainty and confusion.

Our exclusive survey confirms that protecting ROBO-generated data is a three-pronged undertaking: resource consolidation, management controls and optimization approaches.

No longer is the remote office/branch office (ROBO) the stepchild of enterprise IT; it's now a central part of many organizations' data storage initiatives. But cobbling together a strategy to protect data generated outside the main data center, and ensuring that remote workers can painlessly access data center-hosted apps, is much more difficult than many vendors are willing to admit. And we have the data to prove it.

Storage magazine and Taneja Group, a Hopkinton, MA-based market analyst firm, recently conducted a detailed survey of 254 IT professionals with responsibility for ROBO management and planning. Our research reveals that while 70% of respondents now view ROBO as central to business operations, there are still many areas of uncertainty and confusion. Specifically, the survey found that one of the most poorly defined concepts in the remote office today--and therefore the most misunderstood--is resource consolidation.

For most companies, resource consolidation for ROBOs has escaped detailed scrutiny. Over the past two years, storage managers have been bombarded with vendor pitches suggesting that devices and applications sitting at the edge of the enterprise are subpar and a drag on corporate efficiency. Vendors strongly advocate replacing such gear with cutting-edge gateway devices that deliver WAFS, WAN optimization and application acceleration.

In certain situations, consolidation brings considerable benefits. However, the reality is that there's a lot more to a successful ROBO strategy than the aggressive physical consolidation of resources. Our survey shows that, in many cases, such consolidation isn't possible nor is it currently desired by enterprises. According to the survey, 51% of organizations want to keep all or most of their IT resources deployed at the ROBO site and selectively engage in consolidation. Only 16% indicate a desire to remove most/all of their IT resources from the ROBO, while 33% would remove some IT resources (see "Deployment strategies").

Our survey confirms that storage managers are beginning to think about their ROBO IT strategy beyond just physical IT resource consolidation, giving equal weight to management controls and optimization approaches, regardless of where their ROBO technologies reside. This is because IT teams know that some of their business processes and infrastructures will preclude aggressive physical consolidation. Only when an IT team thinks about all three of these concepts together--resource consolidation, management controls and optimization approaches--can they feel confident about picking the appropriate approach for what stays at the edge of the enterprise, what goes to the main data center and how it should all be managed.

Resource consolidation
This strategy centers on removing locally deployed storage and servers from ROBOs and replacing the IT gear with various wide-area gateway technologies, terminal emulation and software services delivered from the main data center. Depending on the workflow and an organization's needs, resource consolidation can be aggressive or nearly nonexistent.

Because of recent technology innovations that have enabled this broad concept, resource consolidation has garnered the lion's share of attention.

But no matter how attractive a proposition it is for most companies, consolidating all remote-office data into the main data center is a significant undertaking. According to our survey, 19% of our respondents have more than 50% of their production data resident in ROBO locations, with another 21% indicating they have between 26% and 50% of their production data residing in ROBOs (see "Percent of total production data that resides in ROBOs," below).

For most enterprises, the reality is that a great deal of that data will remain at the edges of the enterprise for the foreseeable future. Accordingly, it's the coordinated management of edge and core data that will be one of the major ROBO IT tasks of the next several years.

But there are some key areas where we see users agreeing on what should be consolidated out of the ROBO. Approximately 46% of respondents indicate a strong desire to consolidate database servers and storage out of their remote sites, while approximately 40% indicate the same strong inclination for consolidation of their app servers and IT management tools. This indicates some very powerful momentum, and explains much of the attraction of available wide-area application-acceleration products. But many companies would ideally like to consolidate resources on a case-by-case basis.

Specifically, our survey found that IT teams are using a combination of local deployment and remote delivery of services from the main data center. Approximately 54% of surveyed users indicate a desire to deliver file services in this "mixed" manner, while 52% want to conduct backup operations in some combination of local and remote deployments. Again, this indicates that users want to maintain some resources at the edges of the organization. But why?

The answer is simple: The desire for selective consolidation reflects the realities about the requirements and management dispositions of firms. For many enterprises with larger remote sites or distributed workflows, maintaining significant ROBO IT resources is often highly desirable; there are often compelling availability or recovery reasons for keeping business-critical processes at least partially at the edge.

Resource consolidation technologies, while exciting and powerful, shouldn't be treated as a one-size-fits-all proposition. While WAFS and application-acceleration tools can transform distributed computing, it's clear their future will also require them to coexist with locally delivered and managed processes. Users tell us their data will live on the edge of the enterprise for a long time. This leads us to the next of the three key concepts in the ROBO: management controls.

ROBO security issues

Security is now top of mind in remote/branch deployments. Here are some common security issues to consider when operating across the WAN:

  1. Device-to-device authentication. It's not enough to have security just between clients and branch-office optimization devices, or between the branch servers and the WAN optimization device. The optimization devices themselves should provide solid security.

  2. Directory integration. Scrutinize security issues relating to directory services provided to remote/ branch sites. If you're considering a WAN optimization or application-acceleration platform, explore the transparency and integration with existing user controls and management policies.

  3. Data authorizations. There are many approaches to handling data authorization at remote/branch offices. Make sure the vendor demonstrates how it ensures coherency and prevents data corruption. WAN optimization devices must communicate with each other or a central site. Understand the vendor's approach in detail.

  4. Server security integration. Users should ensure that security on their server platforms integrates with potential WAN tools. For example, make sure session integrity (e.g., SMB signing in Microsoft) is supported by the WAN tool to prevent man-in-the-middle attacks.

Management controls
It's revealing that 52% of respondents say their top remote/branch IT challenge is proper management of the infrastructure. This response held constant across all deployment sizes and industries. Management controls have taken on more importance as storage managers grapple with growing and more complex remote-office deployments. Typical management issues include questions about security controls and whether various products can be managed through a common interface.

The issues of management controls are 100% distinct from resource consolidation, even though many vendors lump the two concepts together. By separating management controls from storage consolidation, you have more flexibility as to how you can structure your ROBO infrastructure. For example, it's possible to have centralized controls over remote/branch data processes, security processes and apps, but still have them all remain locally deployed at remote/branch locations as in a typical Windows DFS-based deployment.

Regarding desirable product attributes, 51% of users say they're interested in centralized management controls. To drive this point home, in the same question, 58% of all respondents checked integration capabilities as a desirable feature, indicating the importance of weaving a new technology in with an existing infrastructure.

One of the key areas where this integration and management control matters most is security (see "ROBO security issues"), especially as some next-generation remote/branch IT solutions begin to span and converge multiple technologies such as network compression, app acceleration, WAFS and app integration. An aggregate 46% of respondents list pervasive security controls as one of the top two critical factors in their potential remote/branch IT deployment, second only to mission-critical reliability (see "Top two features a ROBO technology must possess").

The ROBO security management issues users are concerned with are centralized user-access controls and directory services for server environments, application-based security, encryption for WAN appliances and routers, and local disk-encryption techniques for remotely located servers and storage.

There are various techniques to reduce the amount of data stored at ROBOs or the amount of ROBO data sent to the main data center. There's a significant amount of innovation regarding the optimization of WAN bandwidth, data capacities, replication workloads, and protocol or application delivery, to name some major areas. As such, an organization's optimization approaches constitute the third critical element of any ROBO infrastructure.

Our survey finds users prefer to optimize data at the source. This makes sense, but if data is to be transported back to the main data center to take advantage of a consolidated infrastructure, it's critical to deploy optimization technologies to increase WAN utilization, decrease storage consumption and streamline data protection (see "Preferred approaches for ROBO data optimization").

These optimization approaches can work with any kind of ROBO consolidation strategy. Today's WAN optimization tools that "fill the pipe" are architecturally neutral to resource consolidation. Similarly, data-at-rest optimization works just as well at the edge of the enterprise as it does at the core. For those engaging in consolidation, that's the impetus to learn how some of the more advanced distributed backup and replication platforms can radically reduce transmitted data across the WAN. Users should view their optimization approach as a leverage point to control the shape and cost of their ROBO, regardless of how aggressively they're engaged in a consolidation strategy.

Key decisions
There are several factors IT teams should consider as they contemplate their remote/branch deployments:

Local vs. remote bias: An enterprise's attitude toward resource consolidation can make a big difference in the ROBO infrastructure. Accordingly, you should determine if your organization requires or desires a highly consolidated ROBO environment or a less-consolidated infrastructure. That determination will point the team toward local or remote delivery strategies and vendors. For example, a highly consolidation-centric firm will find it easy to justify investments in application acceleration and WAFS tools that remove local IT resources and drive consolidation. By contrast, a collaboration-centric organization may place higher emphasis on locally delivered technologies. It might assemble network optimization tools around its locally based server and storage platforms for collaboration purposes, leveraging local capacity controls and optimization. Knowing your company's position on local vs. remote delivery for each key technology is critical, as it will drive the entire deployment.

Integration requirements: A top concern of our respondents is the ability of a given ROBO technology to integrate with other products in the ROBO, especially network resources and end-to-end security. Some organizations will need a tightly integrated solution that ensures seamless security with their app, server and directory environments. Others may have very few integration requirements, with only a small number of apps spanning the ROBO infrastructure, making them more open to third-party, best-of-breed products. Understanding immediate integration needs and the potential integration points 24 months from now lets users identify products with the right level of integration support.

Business process alignment: What challenge is addressed by the ROBO initiative? Is it broad-based IT consolidation, data protection consolidation, regulatory compliance or disaster recovery? The answer will let the IT team focus its remote/branch energies in different areas. For example, a data protection consolidation/centralization/optimization effort will focus on backup and replication software selection, whereas a server consolidation effort will focus on application-acceleration offerings. The economic and management equations for these processes will look very different, especially in the early stages of deployment.

A one-size-fits-all consolidation approach won't satisfy every company's data consolidation and ROBO support needs. The good news is that our survey shows that storage managers can build the ROBO infrastructure they need by balancing consolidation with management controls and optimization approaches. By balancing these three concepts, storage teams can retain the flexibility to build the remote/branch infrastructure they need on their terms.

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