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WAN optimization staves off bandwidth upgrade

WAN optimization has given Columbia Forest Products enough of a boost to avoid a bandwidth upgrade for six years.

It's been six years and counting since Columbia Forest Products has upgraded its bandwidth. Six years!

Considering that bandwidth upgrades are an annual chore for many international companies, Columbia Forest Products, North America's largest manufacturer of hardwood, plywood and veneer, has reason to boast -- and a fatter budget to back up that bragging.

"Instead of buying bigger pipes, we can run smaller pipes more efficiently," said Cliff Cayer, director of network operations for Columbia Forest Products.

The company deployed PacketShaper from Packeteer at each of its 22 production facilities and sales offices to speed transmissions over the WAN, Cayer said. Columbia was having trouble with Telnet-based traffic on "archaic green screens." Someone inputting data would put in a character, which had to reach the server before coming back to the screen. The round trip would take a while.

At the same time, Cayer said, he was fighting what he calls "predatory" traffic -- audio, YouTube and other traffic that hogs bandwidth and makes the WAN "peaky."

With PacketShapers, he was able to isolate the Telnet traffic, giving it its own set amount of bandwidth to ensure that it is always prioritized and that no other forms of traffic can cause it to deteriorate. Being able to control the characteristics of the traffic and partitioning it for a certain amount of bandwidth made a huge difference, he said.

Cayer said the trick is classifying all applications running across the WAN. Doing so has given the company swift response time and has created a 99% success rate for critical applications.

PacketShaper works by assessing the application traffic to determine the correct WAN optimization or acceleration technique to apply.

Overall, Cayer said, being able to flag traffic for optimization has kept the company's bandwidth costs low -- roughly $44,000 a month. In 2000, that same amount of bandwidth ran about $40,000 a month, but Cayer estimated that with typical bandwidth upgrades and increased costs, Columbia Forest Products would be spending $70,000 a month without optimization.

"The nature of our business requires locating production facilities in remote and rural areas where the cost of WAN bandwidth is extraordinarily high," Cayer said. "As we added new business-critical applications to the network, the existing fractional T1 links were becoming congested, causing user response time to degrade significantly. The situation was particularly challenging because we maintain a full centralized IT architecture with all applications housed in the data center of our Portland, Ore., headquarters."

Before deploying PacketShapers, Cayer said, the company looked at various alternatives but initially rolled out PacketShaper 1500s, which unclogged a number of traffic problems. As traffic began to increase, Columbia upgraded all 20 facilities and both sales offices with PacketShaper 2500s and installed two 9500s in a redundant, load-sharing configuration at its headquarters.

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The network now supports more than 1,100 users and several additional applications but still uses the same fractional T1 links with no performance slips.

Cayer said he kicked around the idea of optimizing traffic at the router but determined that "routers are not the right device for traffic management because they are able to queue traffic based only on packet prioritization schemes, which are difficult to align with business value or individual applications." He added that shaping traffic with routers can't compare because "you can't manage something you can't measure."

Columbia has full visibility into all traffic flows and can shape bandwidth dynamically for every application, Cayer said. Critical apps such as ERP, business intelligence, sales and reporting, printing, and email all work with stringent response times. Cayer also tweaked the system to prohibit certain traffic, such as video and iTunes.

However, controlling traffic flows also enables Columbia to allow end users to surf the Web at times when bandwidth is available.

Robert Buckmaster, Columbia's lead engineer on the PacketShaper project, said in a statement: "Our user community understands the need to manage network bandwidth. They appreciate the enhanced performance and productivity they get in their daily routine and respect the fact we need to throttle back or block Web surfing and other leisurely pursuits during peak traffic periods. In effect, if it's not on the 'allow list,' we want to restrict that traffic when the network is busy with more important tasks."

Columbia also tracks link performance and peak and average utilization by application and user, but historically and in real time. Buckmaster said his staff can spend less time troubleshooting WAN performance and more time focusing on other IT initiatives.

"We think of it as a crystal ball into the network. We can see exactly what protocols are there and their response times," Buckmaster said. "We can control traffic from the Internet and through the WAN links."

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