In today's world, it's no secret that companies are increasingly distributed, and their employees are more mobile. Those mobile workers are using complex applications and access large amounts of data over the wide area network (WAN), creating a growing demand for mobile WAN optimization.
Delivering WAN optimization to each individual mobile user can be expensive, however, so enterprises must carefully weigh the benefits against the costs.
Most mobile WAN optimization products extend the functionality of WAN optimization appliances to mobile users by downloading software clients onto users' PCs. Often, these clients communicate with the vendor's WAN optimization appliances in corporate data centers and speed up the performance of distributed applications.
Some vendors are staying out of mobile WAN optimization
The benefits of mobile WAN optimization are fairly obvious, according to Chris Silva, an analyst at Forrester Research. Companies can improve application performance and worker productivity without having to invest in more bandwidth, but the technology can be complicated and expensive. There are also significant operational costs involved in supporting mobile clients, Silva said.
WAN optimization vendor Silver Peak has declined to bring a mobile product to market, according to Jeff Aaron, Silver Peak's vice president of marketing. An internal cost-benefit analysis at the company just didn't add up.
The support costs in particular outweighed any benefits the technology might bring, Aaron said. When an enterprise adds new software to thousands of devices, each iteration needs to be maintained and supported. This involves interoperability testing with other applications on the devices, installation of the client software, and continuous upgrading to ensure everything works together. Desktop support also becomes more complicated, he said, as help-desk engineers try to determine whether trouble is caused by the device, the operating system, the application or the mobile client.
Riverbed and Cisco see mobile opportunities
Other vendors have been more sanguine about mobile WAN optimization. Both Riverbed, with Steelhead Mobile, and Cisco Systems, with Wide Area Application Services (WAAS) Mobile, offer client-based mobile WAN optimization products.
Riverbed believes that the rise in telecommuting makes mobile WAN optimization essential. "In any given month there are close to 33.5 million people that are telecommuting at least once a month," said Joe Ghory, Riverbed's Steelhead Mobile product marketing manager.
Riverbed's mobile client examines all information that crosses the network at the byte level and eliminates redundancies. For example, when a mobile user makes a change to a document and sends it out to other users, the Steelhead client sends out only the bytes that have been changed. Other Steelhead clients incorporate these changes into local copies of the document. "It means that you're able to eliminate this idea of caching information," Ghory said. "All we're really interested in is what has actually changed in the document."
Steelhead eliminates redundancy regardless of application or protocol as it crosses the network, according to Ghory. It also uses a universal data store rather than several data locations with different iterations. This eliminates scalability and performance limitations and enhances data reduction when multiple users make changes to data. "[Overall] it's really like taking a Steelhead appliance and putting it on your laptop," Ghory said.
Despite claims that mobile WAN optimization is expensive, Riverbed calls it a smart investment.
"I don't think that anyone who actually goes through the calculations actually finds the product that expensive," said Apurva Dave, Riverbed's director of product marketing. He said Steelhead Mobile is a long-term investment that a company is likely to use for three years or more. "It's not a big cost increase," he said. "And generally what we find is that customers easily pay back the product in the range of six to eight months."
Ghory said mobile WAN optimization delivers return on investment not only on the cost savings side but also through the opportunities the technology creates. Doing business remotely at the same speed as those who are in the office means not only happier employees but happier customers.
Riverbed claims that more than 100,000 users are currently running Steelhead Mobile client, mostly with law and architecture firms, though the company has seen it adopted across almost all verticals.
Cisco has taken a similar approach to mobile WAN optimization. Mark Weiner, director of data center solutions, said WAAS Mobile involves a headend appliance which communicates with software clients on individual PCs. "It's a really streamlined way to deploy WAN optimization," he said.
Cisco is getting good feedback from WAAS Mobile customers, Weiner said. According to a recent Cisco case study, Fuji Xerox Australia saved nearly 30% on mobile data costs by reducing bandwidth consumption with WAAS Mobile. The study also found that remote office workers gained up to three hours of productivity per week.
The more mobile knowledge workers a company has, the greater its need will be for mobile WAN optimization, Weiner said. For example, a judge might need to review a case history from home, or a sales rep might need to prepare for a meeting while waiting for a flight. Not only will they be able to access necessary information much more quickly, but their clients or co-workers will see faster results. The technology offsets the WAN's impact on application delivery to mobile workers.
Engineering consultancy tries mobile WAN optimization
Environmental engineering company Dudek has started using Riverbed's Steelhead Mobile, according to IT director Abe Esguerra. His company has about 80 mobile employees, and the nature of its business demands mobile WAN optimization.
"In our industry, we deal with a lot of large files and there's never enough bandwidth," Esguerra said. "Clients want us to show them some of the files that we're working on live from their site. That was really challenging at the time, and we didn't really have the ability to provide them that information with regard to on-site, real-time display of project files."
Esguerra needed to optimize the mobile transactions for Outlook, SQL servers and file-sharing applications. Outlook was particularly important because employees send emails with large attachments so frequently.
He first considered buying more bandwidth, but he found that Ethernet handoff and gigabit connections weren't enough. "We heard about this technology that would allow us to have this landline experience," he said. "We gave it a shot, we did a demo with Riverbed, and they proved themselves right from the get-go."
When Dudek first deployed Steelhead Mobile, the company had a VPN tunnel with a firewall at each end. That meant adding a Steelhead appliance at each location, which turned out to be an inefficient solution, Esguerra said. Since then, Dudek has been on a private MPLS with a few point-to-point links as well.
Esguerra also said that Steelhead Mobile was a "no-brainer" to deploy. "[Riverbed's] support is top notch," he said. "With Riverbed, usually once we have them configured, we don't have to worry about them until we need to do patches."
He occasionally sees a problem when users exceed the number of connections, however. It was solved when Riverbed discovered that users were opening a new connection and Steelhead license for every protocol type. He reconfigured the deployment so that users would initiate only one Steelhead connection per VPN session.
Dudek has not seen any of the cost-benefit issues that concern some vendors and users. In fact, costs had not been a concern when they chose Steelhead Mobile. "Our investment has definitely paid for itself twice over," Esguerra said. "When you look at the initial investment, the support that we get, the simplicity of it, and the fact that it really does work as claimed – I would say we definitely got a full return on our investment."
Forrester Research's Silva said he understands why some companies think mobile WAN optimization is too expensive. "It really comes down to what percentage of their users are mobile," he said. Companies that have only a few mobile employees may find it convenient, but it won't be necessary or cost-effective.
In the long run, the benefits are too good to forgo, Silva believes. "Basically, if you think about WAN optimization as technology that's going to accelerate your application performance … similar to the way it would in the office, that's the general concept," he said. "It most often is a pretty easy ROI case to make."