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WAN design engineers prefer network fundamentals over next-gen hype

Despite hype around virtualization and cloud computing, today's WAN design engineers are looking to the fundamentals: savings, SIP, and WAN optimization and acceleration.

Next-generation WAN networks are great conversation starters, but for most WAN design engineers, fundamentals are what really count.

Andy Erickson, director of Internet services for Millward Brown, said his company could do without the frills and with more solid fundamentals: Keep the network up, keep it running, and keep it fast.

"The things we're looking for are compression and general usability," he said.

Many enterprises share that mindset, according to Vanessa Alvarez, an analyst with Frost & Sullivan: Build a wide-area network that does the job while holding back on investments in "next-generation WANs" until capital becomes more plentiful and next-generation technologies, like virtualization and enterprise cloud computing, mature a little more.

WAN fundamentals and cost-cutting techniques, however, don't generate the buzz and profit margins that these flashier features garner. As a consequence, conference agendas and marketing blitzes end up being way ahead of the market.

"When you think about maintaining the WAN, it's really about what can I use now to maximize what I have, and I'll worry about what my next-generation WAN will look like later," Alvarez said.

WAN optimization and acceleration

According to Alvarez, one of the oldest WAN technologies is still one of the most in demand.

"Bandwidth is becoming an issue," she said. "[Companies] are trying to maximize what they have with a Riverbed appliance or with a Cisco WAAS."

More and more remote and branch workers, for example, are tapping into live, streaming video for legitimate work purposes. Alvarez said she was watching live Interop keynotes video over her corporate connection.

"There's just so much going over the network right now," she said. "That's a lot of bandwidth over thousands of computers."

Compression techniques continue to advance, but just as important for some enterprises are the caching techniques.

Erickson found WAN caching, of YouTube and other streaming video, for example, so effective that some Millward Brown branches saw a 60% to 75% boost in Web traffic after he implemented it.

"It's the redundant file transfers that you're trying to compress that take up a lot of load on the wire," he said. "That's more important than a lot of other aspects."

Voice rates and SIP trunking

While voice rates have plummeted and a down economy is a perfect excuse to re-negotiate voice rates, some enterprises are also finding huge savings in SIP trunking.

"I think that out of all the technologies I've seen the past few years, SIP trunking is gaining a lot of traction right now," Alvarez said. "Enterprises are looking at it as a sort of stepping stone to get a quick ROI without having to do so much change to their platform. We just did a webinar on SIP trunking, and it was amazing the turnout we had. It's something that ... can be a quick turnaround with pretty significant cost savings."

Vendors are keen to help customers tap into those savings, even as they tout SIP's other advantages.

For example, Avaya launched Aura Session Manager with an eye to merging many disparate forms of communication in a single, elegant package. The company acknowledged that savings, not unified communications, is driving its adoption.

"We're talking about trunking and dial plans, because that's where the money is being spent," Lawrence Byrd, Avaya's director of unified communications architecture, told while talking up the Avaya strategy. Part of that strategy, he said, was that the Aura architecture establishes a foundation for the future by allowing customers to migrate incrementally. SIP trunking savings can be realized today, for example, with the fine-tuned command and control of all communications coming in the future.

Make every WAN dollar count

Enterprises are also eager to abandon the fuzzy math that might have flown even a year ago. Improved efficiency, for example, might not get very far in a sales pitch unless tied to a tangible dollar amount.

"When you have 80% of businesses in the SMB and midmarket range, those don't really count on being cash positive or cash flush," Alvarez said. "Those medium businesses have been hit really hard, and they're just trying to keep the lights on." Spending without commensurate savings, or at least a very solid return, is out of the question.

Erickson can easily tie revenue to his organization's ability to rapidly track down and troubleshoot problems because workers getting knocked offline equals money lost.

"If there is a traffic backup, we need to locate it and trace where it is and remove the issue," he said. "If there's a bandwidth hog in New York, here's the IP and this is what they're doing: Are they downloading, uploading, or streaming music? Identifying that quickly and resolving it is what matters."

For other companies, being able to support remote workers or teleworkers can mean a solid return.

Alvarez said that the direct costs of supporting a remote employee versus the expenses in having them work in an office more or less cancel each other out, but the human resources value of being able to retain workers through more flexible work arrangements could be quite high.

"If anything, we're seeing a bigger movement toward remote working, but mostly for the other benefits of it, in terms of retaining talent, which is critical," she said. "The amount of brain drain in this country, and why H-1B visas are so critical to Microsoft and HP, is because we don't have that kind of talent in this country."

Although they offer no direct network savings, these concepts can convince decision makers that key WAN investments are critical even if cuts are being made across the board.

For his part, Erickson has found a few persuasive arguments of his own, largely based on emerging international markets that are best served by a robust WAN that connects Millward Brown's global office network.

"People are starting to realize that the IT infrastructure is more mission critical than it was five years ago," he said. "The Asia-Pacific market, for example, has become a hotbed for global business, so we've beefed up our infrastructure there."

In fact, he said, network investments have increased, not been cut, as a result of this critical network growth, which might offer a ray of hope to others in the field.

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