Why spend money if you don't need to? That's Larry Davis' mantra, at least when it comes to monthly WAN costs. In his search for a way to distribute content cheaply and efficiently, not only did he find a content delivery system that didn't rely on appliances or WAN bandwidth, he also found one that cost much less than hardware-based products.
Davis, senior vice president and chief information officer of Sterne, Agee & Leach Group Inc., a financial services firm in Birmingham, Ala., was recently charged with finding a way to distribute numerous 1 GB training videos to 500 users in nearly three dozen U.S. offices.
Increasing the company's WAN capacity would have been the easiest solution, but that wasn't an option. Davis had just sliced those monthly costs from $60,000 to just $8,000 after moving from a slow frame relay system to a point-to-point VPN. Beefing up the WAN would have meant allowing that monthly expenditure to skyrocket once again.
"I was looking to make a capital expenditure, as opposed to a monthly recurring cost," Davis said. "My problem was our WAN is the only thing we have to buy monthly. There's never an ROI on something you buy every month."
That led Davis to research content distribution systems. Also known as content delivery networks, the technology uses a combination of hardware and software to deliver one copy of a file to a geographic location, where it is shared by multiple users. However, Davis quickly found that nearly all of those systems require an expensive appliance at each remote location.
After evaluating other vendors, he discovered an entirely software-based offering from Framingham Mass.-based Bandwiz Inc. For less than 1/10th of the price of Cisco Systems Inc.'s product, Davis discovered Bandwiz could solve its content distribution problem without any network upgrades or new infrastructure.
The power of PCs
Most content distribution systems rely on appliances to manage storage and distribution. However, Bandwiz president and CEO Haim Neerman said his company's product takes advantage of unused hard drive space on end-users' PCs.
Using an invisible agent program, Neerman said Bandwiz claims a portion of empty hard drive space on multiple PCs, aggregating those segments into a virtual grid cache that can be managed like a storage device. Using the vendor's management software, Neerman said network managers can then decide when files will be distributed and where they'll be stored.
Davis found the system appealing because it allowed him to distribute videos at night when WAN usage is lowest, as well as utilize the 3,000 GB of excess storage capacity sitting unused on PCs throughout the company.
Once a file reaches the LAN, the Bandwiz software finds the file on a local PC and streams it to the user. Davis said neither PC nor LAN performance is affected by concurrent users viewing a file simultaneously, but only two users are allowed to stream the same video at any given time to prevent bogging down the host PC.
Following his first on-site meeting with Neerman, Davis said it only took eight days to complete the implementation. After a few more days of testing, the Bandwiz system was live and in use throughout the company.
Software still a hard sell?
Despite his own positive experience with a software-based content distribution system, Davis said they may not be for everyone. His company recently refreshed its desktop PCs, which helps augment the system's performance, but he said performance won't be optimal on PCs running Windows NT or those "with Pentium 2 Celerons running 300 MHz processors."
To keep the WAN from becoming congested, it must also take special care to ensure that files are distributed during low usage periods.
"The value proposition for Cisco is to put different functionality in one box, and make the price point more attractive," Mendel said. "Buying an enterprise content delivery network from Cisco can be quite expensive," but it will be much cheaper as one element of a multi-function Cisco blade server.
However, Neerman said Cisco and other hardware vendors can't compete with his company on price because, at least for now, their visions of all-in-one products have yet to be fulfilled.
For Davis, he expects that his content distribution system will last at least three years, even as it increases the size of the average training video to approximately 1.8 GB. He said that because he didn't have to buy new hardware, upgrade the network or get specially trained personnel to manage the system, the implementation was definitely a success.