WAN optimization with Cisco Wide Area Application Services (WAAS) has improved the performance of bandwidth-hungry engineering and collaboration applications over the WAN -- and helped improve collaboration overall -- for the Michael Baker Corporation, an engineering firm based in Moon Township, Pa.
For the Michael Baker Corporation -- which engineers roads, bridges and highways, as well as providing operation and maintenance for oil and gas companies -- collaboration among its remote sites is essential. The company uses AutoCAD, a popular computer-aided design (CAD) application that produces files of immense size, and Bentley ProjectWise, a Sharepoint-like utility that regulates versions and automates workflow, to enable collaboration among CAD users at the company's branch offices and its customers.
"Ensuring that those teams can work together collaboratively and complete the work on time so that we can do our review and, obviously, our submittal to the client on time is critical," said Jeremy Gill, CIO of Michael Baker.
Latency over the WAN
Collaboration via ProjectWise helps the company make the best use of its distributed workforce. "By using staff that are underutilized in other offices, not necessarily within the project or central office, we're able to get our billable rates up as well as drive more revenue to the business," Gill said.
But the application needed some help to perform optimally over the wide area network. Gill said the company ran into a couple of problems early on with its ProjectWise deployment. Users at remote sites first had trouble connecting to the application, and when they did connect, they ran into disruptive latency over the WAN.
Employees who were local to the master data store for the project were able to work at LAN-like speed. But employees at remote offices encountered latency that would hold up the collaboration workflow. "That was hindering our efforts to have a seamless workflow, [and] our folks were just frustrated and would complain about it being too slow," Gill said.
Michael Baker Corporation experimented with a partially decentralized deployment of ProjectWise to help counter the latency issues they found when testing the centralized version in their data center. "Some of the datasets were multi-terabytes, and we were finding difficulty with our remote sites connecting to it," Gill said. "So we took a different approach as we were doing our testing than when we actually rolled it out -- we rolled it out as a hybrid model of centralized/decentralized."
Even after rolling out a hybrid deployment, the latency problems continued, Gill said. "For example, we may have a data store in a small site like Louisville, Ky., but folks throughout the U.S. working on it. So those folks coming across the wide area network were having some latency issues."
Cisco wins out in WAN optimization vendor selection
That's when Michael Baker turned to WAN acceleration, evaluating Cisco WAAS and two other WAN optimization vendors, which Gill declined to identify. The company narrowed its selection to two vendors -- focusing on compatibility, service, support and pricing -- and then began testing them.
A primary compatibility consideration was with queuing, since the company has both VoIP and video traffic running on its network with an MPLS backbone. "We needed to ensure that whatever switch we put in didn't mess with the markings on the packets so they would stay in the priority queues," Gill said. "That was a big concern of ours, and when we did our evaluation testing, we were very cognizant and made sure we saw what we wanted to see and that the markings were consistent across the board."
Gill said that the latency reductions and pricing were similarly appealing for both vendors they evaluated. "From a technical standpoint, it was very consistent between the Cisco solution and the other vendor's solution," he said. "The biggest things for us were the other drivers." These drivers included the favorable TCO the company could achieve using NME blade servers with the WAAS solution, as well as Cisco's service and support model, Smartnet, which was already included with the company's other Cisco infrastructure.
"We are a Cisco shop end-to-end from an infrastructure standpoint, so their solution plugged very nicely into our entire infrastructure," Gill said.
WAN optimization bonus: Green IT
Engineering firms like Michael Baker deal with environmental sustainability on a daily basis. "As we work through building bridges and highways or doing environmental cleanup, we're very cognizant of the environment -- what the regulations are, and what we've got to do to preserve it," Gill said.
On the IT side, however, the driver for sustainability has been cost savings. "Really, it's kind of one and the same if you look at it," Gill said. "It's just [that] now the focus has shifted from the cost savings to more of the green initiatives and sustainability, but there's still a driver in cost savings."
WAAS has enabled the company to offer more telecommuting options for its geographically dispersed workforce at the same time as it has accelerated their access to local file stores. "The biggest thing for telecommuting for us right now is how to bridge the gap between the needs of folks in the business and [their] wants," Gill said. "We really want to be a great place to work, and we're working with employees to see how we can make their lives better."
WAN optimization with WAAS "A huge success"
Currently, Michael Baker has deployed WAAS to nearly 75% of its sites, and Gill calls the deployment "a huge success."
"We continue to reap benefits from it every day," he said. "I think overall we're saving multi-terabytes on a monthly basis across the network. It's a significant amount of savings, and we can quantify that. The other piece of that is the amount of money we haven't spent upgrading our bandwidth. Because of WAAS, we've been able to push off upgrading our bandwidth at a number of locations."
While the primary focus of WAN acceleration was on improving CAD performance, it has also had ancillary benefits, Gill said, including improving Web traffic, HTML, static content, email and messaging and WAFS. "Our user base is very happy with the performance they've gained."