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Improving WAN performance: Zero in on services, user needs

WAN performance problems aren't always solved by applying optimization tools without some planning. Observing what services are being delivered over the WAN, and how, before implementing an optimization solution can help IT better meet user needs and spare the enterprise a deployment and financial headache.

Early WAN acceleration and compression techniques primarily tried to cram as many bits as possible through networking pipes. Over the past few years, however, optimization has become more sensitive to the applications and how they are used within a network. This approach has allowed for a richer and more granular prioritization of what gets optimized -- how, when and even for whom.

Applications are not the end game, though -- services are. By focusing on the services being delivered to users and setting performance goals around these services, IT can direct its efforts and technological solutions toward meeting user needs, not simply hitting certain network performance targets.

Finding the real problem that needs solving is a critical first step to avoid wasting optimization dollars and expending valuable staff time and attention.
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As an example, consider a midsize professional services company whose users routinely collaborate across business lines and from great distances. When we came across them during the course of our research, the company had experienced significant performance problems as users tried to work together. The IT department quickly realized the WAN was the culprit, and despite limited visibility into their WAN decided optimization was the solution.

Team members secured a few hundred thousand dollars in funding, enough for a complete rollout of WAN optimization to all branches from almost any vendor; and then laid out a rough project plan. As part of this plan, the company tried three all-purpose optimization solutions (from Riverbed, Cisco, and Blue Lane), each an archetypical combination of compression, latency-reducing accelerations, and prioritization.

What the IT department found, however, was that although all three brands worked exactly as advertised -- compressing and accelerating and prioritizing -- all three failed to fix the problem. The complaints remained, even when connections were supposedly enhanced with optimizers.

Blind ambition: Identify applications before solving problems

The first lesson learned here is that blindly tossing an optimizer into the mix is a lot like throwing more bandwidth at a performance problem -- it is only sometimes effective, and the solution is often only temporary.

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IT wisely backed off and returned to basics by deciding to first figure out what the problem actually was before applying any potential solutions. To do that, they had to look at how people actually used the network and applications to do. They had to first understand the IT infrastructure from a user's perspective -- not as a collection of technologies, but as a basket of services enabling the business.

By shifting their perspective and approaching the problem from a user's viewpoint, IT discovered that all the real and consistent performance complaints centered on applications that moved very large files around. They also found that for several applications, the files in question were resistant to standard acceleration techniques.

With this information, IT was finally able to seek out a wide-area file service (WAFS) tool that specifically addressed the problem of sharing very large, very changeable files. Installing that, their problems were solved -- and for less than 66% the cost of even the least expensive of the optimizers they tried.

Finding effective WAN solutions with positive SLAs

The second lesson that came out of this company's experience -- if you do not realize that your core objective is to deliver the performance users need on the services they see as critical, then you run the risk of unnecessarily deploying optimization tools that can easily burn through organizational resources (both hard dollars and staff time) and accelerate the irrelevant without helping the critical.

WAN performance problem-solving 101

 -- Don't blindly throw technology at problems you don't understand

 -- Take a user's perspective to problem-solving

 -- Consider services as well as applications

 -- Goal is to boost performance for services delivered

Finding the real problem that needs solving is a critical first step to avoid wasting optimization dollars and expending valuable staff time and attention. Focusing on services, not on the network or even on applications per se, and then developing real service-level agreements (SLAs) around these services, is a powerful method for helping IT accomplish this and ultimately eliminate the real problems.

Of course, strong SLAs build in remedies for failure to meet promised service levels, and companies may be reluctant to put really sharp teeth in their internal SLAs. The executives we work with tell us the most effective penalty clauses are not financial, forcing reimbursements or refunds, but provide penalty-free exits from the contract for IT.

Some organizations already treat in-sourcing as an option, to be shed if internal IT cannot provide the services needed. Organizations committed to keeping IT in house should consider adopting outsourcing as an SLA safety valve and IT should support the idea.

Giving business lines an exit clause puts effective teeth in performance SLAs, which should help IT keep its eye on the ball: maintaining and improving the performance of the services the organization requires.

About the author: John Burke is a principal research analyst with Nemertes Research, where he focuses on software-oriented architectures and management isues.

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