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WAN acceleration for data centers: How can it help you?

WAN acceleration in the data center can prioritize critical business data into the fast lane over the network, improving application performance across the WAN.

Your data center is humming along just fine, but as your business adds video, audio, and other bandwidth-hungry files and applications, the network just doesn't seem to perform as quickly as it once did.

So what can you do?

You can add extra bandwidth with additional, expensive T1 lines, but that would also quickly increase your monthly costs. The other downside to that strategy is that it's a never-ending battle -- when your bandwidth needs to increase exponentially again, you'll just have to add more T1 lines, adding more expenses.

But there is an alternative. You can move to WAN acceleration for your data center.

What is WAN acceleration?

WAN acceleration compresses and removes duplicate information (deduplicates) from your data stream as it is sent over your wide area network (WAN). That lets you send out much more data faster through the same pipe without losing speed or performance. A WAN accelerator is an appliance that you add at each end of your network connections so that data is processed at both ends of the stream. Where WAN acceleration really makes a huge difference is that it can allow you to set rules to decide which parts of your data stream have priority over others and should be sent fastest. By being able to control which files or data go first and fastest, WAN acceleration allows you to get critical data where it needs to go much more quickly and in a targeted fashion while allowing noncritical data move at a slower pace.

User story: How WAN acceleration helps Hitachi Consulting

Michael Shisko, director of IT for Dallas-based Hitachi Consulting, has used WAN acceleration to connect his company's remote offices around the world for almost three years.

"We originally began looking at it when we started getting complaints that the network performance wasn't that good on certain applications" and that Intranet and file access was slowing, Shisko said.

The problems multiplied several years ago as the company began to grow in size through acquisitions. "We started as a company where everything was centralized and then we acquired companies," which spread Hitachi's IT infrastructure over additional locations, he said. "The companies that we acquired were used to having local network access but then were getting it remotely from our headquarters. That slowed things down for them."

To try to solve the problem and speed up the network for its remote locations, Hitachi investigated WAN acceleration and tested several offerings from vendors, including Riverbed Technology, Silver Peak Systems Inc. and others. Hitachi first went with Packeteer's PacketShaper (now owned by Blue Coat Systems), but found that while it initially did increase network speeds, it "really didn't get the big bang that we expected," according to Shisko.

As Hitachi expanded its offices into Europe, the network slowness returned, he said.

That's when Hitachi looked deeper into WAN acceleration and found that the market had changed substantially since its first tests 18 months before. "We had found that just accelerating what was on the WAN didn't solve all the problems and that some applications, given the bandwidth they wanted, they would just take it" and slow everything else down, said Shisko.

Soon after, Hitachi found WAN acceleration technologies from Blue Coat that allowed administrators to set rules for network traffic so that critical files would get the highest priority while less important files received lower priority. Using the technology, administrators gained visibility into what was being sent and could prioritize the traffic. "We needed to accelerate what we wanted to speed up and not accelerate the rest," Shisko said.

About 20 Blue Coat WAN acceleration appliances were installed last year throughout Hitachi's network, giving administrators the controls they sought, he said. The devices support about 1,600 employees worldwide.

According to Shisko, a key reason for going with WAN acceleration is that many challenges can't be solved by just adding more bandwidth because it simply speeds up all that's being sent. "WAN acceleration should at least come onto the table when you're contemplating spending more money on bandwidth alone."

There were financial benefits of WAN acceleration as well, he said. It would have cost Hitachi an extra $9,000 per month, or $325,000 over three years, to bring in more bandwidth. "We did not pay that much for the acceleration hardware," he said.

And how has it worked?

"The trans-Atlantic users have noticed better performance," he said. The benefits aren't noticed as strikingly by U.S. users because they don't suffer from the same long-distance latency delays.

"The real take-away from our experiences is that acceleration without visibility is an incomplete solution," he said.

Analysts: WAN acceleration is growing in use

According to industry research firm IDC, WAN application delivery is a $1 billion market today and is increasing.

Joe Skorupa, an analyst with Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc., said that WAN acceleration use is popular as companies add branch offices and need to keep their networks running well despite heavier loads.

"Originally, the idea was that everything would be in the data center and then the WAN device would be used to solve the application problems caused by latency and bandwidth problems," Skorupa said. "But like many things, it didn't quite work out that way."

Some network services, such as print and IP address services, were found to be needed locally in the branch offices to keep people working in case the network was ever unavailable.

And in many cases, a key application is needed in a branch office so work can be done and it has to be located on-site so workers can always access it, Skorupa said. Many WAN acceleration appliances now have those capabilities to host third-party applications as guests to keep remote offices in operation even if network problems arise.

Chris Silva, an analyst with Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc., said the need for WAN acceleration is often brought about by a company's network workloads -- it's more critical if your business relies heavily on bandwidth-sapping uses such as heavy use of training videos and audio files, rich media, Web-based applications and more.

"WAN acceleration compresses it and makes it work again," he said.

It's also useful in third-world countries or locations where telecom carriers can't get increased bandwidth out of their physical systems, Silva said.

The latest version of the technology, where traffic is compressed and then prioritized, as in the case of Blue Coat, Riverbed and even Citrix Systems, is a big advance, he said.

It's been popular because it makes economic sense compared with buying additional bandwidth, which is more costly, Silva said. "You can do this with a commodity IP link and condition it and get same performance as with [additional bandwidth] for less money, even after spending $5,000 or $10,000 per end on appliances."

To decide how to go, companies also need input from several key internal players, Silva said. "Usually the network operations [head] looks at it, but it's critical to have two other people at the table -- the applications team, because you need to know the applications that will run and how critical they are, and the security team. You need to be making sure you are meeting the letter of the compliance laws that affect you and that you offer relatively advanced security."

About the author:
Todd R. Weiss is an award-winning technology journalist and freelance writer who worked as a staff reporter for from 2000 to 2008. He spends his spare time working on a book about an unheralded member of the 1957 Milwaukee Braves and watching classic Humphrey Bogart movies. Follow him on Twitter @TechManTalking.

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