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Retailer fights downtime with link bonding, WAN load balancing

Network managers can do everything right but still get burned when a WAN service provider doesn't. A retail chain is protecting itself by using a WAN controller that enables WAN load balancing and link bonding that can ease the pains of latency and downtime.

Redundancy means more than having a backup connection or selecting more than one wide area network (WAN) service provider. As one West Coast retailer learned, WAN managers can do everything right but still get burned when a service provider doesn't. Using a WAN controller that enables WAN load balancing and link bonding has protected it from latency and downtime.

[IT departments] control the local area network, but as soon as they go over the wide area, they're relying on the service provider.
Marc Goodman
Director of MarketingEcessa

"If you have a T1, it's in the hands of the provider. If it's not operating properly and you don't have a load balancer or the backup solution isn't strong enough to do the job right, you're in trouble," said Lars Osberg, IT manager of Samy's Camera, a California-based photography gear retailer. "Then the finger-pointing starts going on, and it gets really frustrating."

Point-to-point T1 lines connect Samy's corporate offices in Los Angeles to its six retail stores in Southern California, including its flagship store down the street from corporate headquarters, which houses the company's data center. Every location has at least one Internet connection -- with a myriad of carriers -- as an automatic failover to enable network access through a virtual private network (VPN) tunnel if a T1 fails.

Osberg had intended the system to be a temporary solution if his WAN service provider were to suffer an outage for one or two hours -- not one or two days. But a string of WAN service provider outages over the past several months -- each lasting 35 to 40 hours -- revealed the limitations of his VPN backup, Osberg said, and made the situation "totally unacceptable."

"[If] we had a T1 link go down, that means we would have 75 users congesting over one VPN link," he said. "In a store, it means -- depending on how busy it is -- that you have problems serving customers if a computer goes down in the middle of a transaction and you have to start over. And … [customers] walk."

Tapping Ecessa's WAN controllers for WAN load balancing and link bonding

It wasn't as though Osberg had never tried using a link controller before to ease his WAN service provider problems. On the contrary, he had gone through three load balancers but was underwhelmed by the paltry boost in throughput they offered.

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Then he tried the PowerLink from Ecessa. During testing, throughput was 43% higher and latency was 42% lower than the last one he had used, thanks to Ecessa's ability to aggregate the speed and power of three of Samy's Internet connections into one virtual pipe.

"It gives us more resilience," said Osberg, who has put a PowerLink box in his data center and corporate office. "We don't go down because one [Internet connection] goes down, and [the bonded links are] faster. It's much more effective."

Marc Goodman, vice president of marketing at Ecessa, said enterprises are often at the mercy of their WAN service provider, which may suffer an outage caused by anything from a construction vehicle clipping a line to an equipment problem at the Internet service provider's site.

"Connectivity is out of the control of the IT department," Goodman said. "They control the local area network, but as soon as they go over the wide area, they're relying on the service provider."

WAN controllers that offer WAN load balancing and link bonding can ensure that one failure doesn't take down a network, he said.

"We make sure that the traffic gets distributed across the links evenly and in a way that routes traffic based on congestion. If one of the links is more congested, we'll send traffic to the other link," Goodman said. "We load balance traffic among the links based on how the links are performing."

It's an invaluable investment when locked into a multi-year contract with an unreliable WAN service provider, Osberg said. Although he wouldn't eliminate his T1 lines entirely, Osberg's success with the PowerLink box has him mulling whether he could replace some T1 links with cheaper Internet connections.

"I intentionally took down a T1 and left Ecessa on backup," he said. "I had it down for days – actually, even weeks -- running only over the Ecessa lines ... No one noticed the T1 was down, and as a matter of fact, one of the Internet lines at the corporate office had gone down, and I didn't even know about it."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, News Writer

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