Workforce mobility continues to gain traction as executives and employees recognize the flexibility and productivity gains that working from home provides. But solving one problem has created another: Mobile employees can be a drag on an enterprise's wide area network (WAN). Network engineers must optimize WAN connections for mobile workers, not just between data centers.
Mobile employees are bandwidth eaters who rely on data-heavy applications such as voice-over IP (VoIP) and need efficient access to centralized data in order to mimic the office environment. But a slow WAN link can reverse the very productivity gains mobility is meant to provide.
"You can create a situation where the person just won't work remotely because the experience is so poor," said Zeus Kerravala, a senior vice president at Yankee Group Research Inc. "When you think about the tens of millions of dollars that companies spend on [mobile software solutions], the relatively small investment of … mobile WAN optimization is kind of a no brainer. Why wouldn't you run it?"
Forty percent of employees say they would work remotely more often if their business files or software would load more quickly, according to a recent survey of 900 full-time employees commissioned by WAN optimization vendor Riverbed Technology Inc.
Of those surveyed, more than half (54%) said they concentrate better when working off-site but about a third (33%) said the delays of accessing business files or software remotely kills their productivity. Meanwhile, almost half (47%) of employees said they work off-site more often now than they did two years ago.
"Most organizations simply ensure connectivity, when they should be ensuring both optimization and connectivity," said Chris Silva, a senior analyst at Forrester Research Inc.
Workforce mobility itself is not the problem, but rather the essence of what makes working off-site so viable, he said.
"It's the type of network-centric tools -- VoIP, Web-based apps, centralized data stores -- that organizations are increasingly relying on to provide greater efficiency by consolidating apps and data, and taking advantage of network-deployed versus locally-deployed applications," Silva said. "Many of these, especially 'live' apps like VoIP, are extremely latency sensitive and cease to function when a saturated WAN link is their only route to the larger network."
WAN optimization cures VPN headaches for one firm
For one engineering firm, sharing a VPN tunnel with branch offices and mobile employees used to mean bandwidth was almost always in short supply.
Wesley Corie, network administrator for Providence Engineering in Baton Rouge, La., oversees a network that supports 150 employees and five branch offices. Ten employees at Providence work almost exclusively on a VPN from home and about one-third of the company's staff works from home after hours.
Corie was delivering VPN connectivity to Providence employees with Cisco Systems' Adaptive Security Appliance (ASA), but end users often complained that it took too long to transfer files across the VPN or that the connection was "too flaky," he said. He decided to deploy a WAN optimization product from Riverbed.
"My complaints of VPN [issues] have dropped from two or three a day to one a week," Corie said. "Our branch offices have permanent VPN connections to our main offices, and they use a lot of bandwidth. Once we switched to Riverbed, we have a lot more overhead available, which has actually been really nice. We have a lot more breathing room."
Data center consolidation may mean it's time to optimize WAN performance
Although centralizing and consolidating data centers can yield thousands of dollars in cost savings, this strategy hurts WAN performance when a mobile workforce comes into play.
"Consolidation and virtualization are two trends that have been prevalent through the last couple of years, mainly because [they make] it a lot easier for IT managers to control and manage their resources," said Joe Ghory, marketing manager for Riverbed's Steelhead Mobile, a WAN optimizing software solution for laptops. He said this consolidation has moved data centers further away from some mobile workers, which has an impact on their VPN experience.
Adding another data center closer to mobile employees can cost "hundreds of thousands, even millions" of dollars before personnel costs are considered, Kerravala said. Meanwhile, a "high-end" optimization solution costs closer to $15,000, he said.
I've actually talked to companies that have used WAN optimization as a way to avoid building data centers," Kerravala said.
Silva agreed, noting that "mobile WAN optimization is key," especially as a precaution in the event that a pandemic such as swine flu hits an enterprise and forces hundreds of employees to work remotely.
"Add to that the growing class of users Forrester calls the mobile 'wannabe' folks that may only spend a day or two telecommuting or working from the road, but who demand and need the same set of tools -- mobile optimization, SSL VPN access, mobile devices -- that the 'road warriors' of old used to be the only employees using," Silva said.
Part of the problems stem from the very nature of the mobile sites employees use, whether they are in their living rooms or local coffee shops.
"You're asking the IT department, to a certain extent, to control this uncontrollable environment. It's easier to develop a plan when you control the link, you control the location and you control the site itself," Ghory said. "There's this huge amount of variability. Are these applications going to be served in a near real-time basis?"
Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, News Writer