For many enterprises, collaboration tools are a godsend, enabling users to work together whether they're sitting at a corporate headquarters, branch offices or their kitchen tables. But without wide area network (WAN) accelerators, the technology that giveth also taketh away -- slowing the WAN for users repeatedly downloading huge shared files from remote servers.
Studley Inc., a real estate services firm based in New York City, upgraded its WAN years ago from frame relay to multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) to boost performance at its 19 branch offices across the country, according to Rick Drescher, Studley's director of technical services. But in a cost-saving move, the company recently consolidated data centers, cancelling the benefits of the MPLS upgrade and degrading the performance of Microsoft SharePoint, which remote employees were increasingly relying on for collaboration.
"Whether I like it or not, [collaborative platforms] are basically becoming replacements to file servers," Drescher said. "As we started to centralize more and more applications in our data center … the WAN was just getting saturated, especially where we had concentrations of … users. The options were [to] figure out a way to reduce traffic or upgrade the bandwidth."
Neither option was appealing, Drescher said, but users were reaching a breaking point. For employees in the firm's West Coast offices using SharePoint, WAN latency problems mounted – even small remote files often taking minutes to download, he said.
"As far as the WAN is concerned, latency only gets worse the farther away you get," he said. "If you're in D.C., you're 20 milliseconds away. But if you're in San Francisco and it takes 85 milliseconds, it's a different story. [It doesn't help] that Microsoft is not exactly the creator of the world's most efficient protocol."
SharePoint slow performance countered by WAN accelerators
Early on, Drescher had avoided adding bandwidth as a solution. Not only was he uncertain it would solve the problem, he said, but the idea of yet another never-ending monthly payment was a turnoff.
"We were keen on doing a one-time capital expense," he said. "We learned we'd actually get more of a bandwidth increase with the [WAN] accelerators than doubling the bandwidth at the branch offices."
After vetting proposals from
-- and reviewing reports on -- about a half-dozen vendors, including networking heavyweights Cisco Systems and Juniper Networks, Drescher found during his search two years ago that endorsements from IT shops at other companies were the most powerful influence.
He narrowed the field to two independent WAN acceleration vendors: Riverbed and Blue Coat Systems. Riverbed won on ease of installation. He found he could install and configure each Riverbed Steelhead device in less than 30 minutes.
The results also came just as quickly. Boxes went into the headquarters' Manhattan server room and a nearby collocation facility housing its data center, followed by installations in several of Studley's branch offices around the country.
"When we turned it on, people were like, 'Wow!'" Drescher said. "Our more complicated SharePoint sites … went from loading in a minute or two minutes down to four or five seconds because that information was able to be accelerated and cached at the branch level."
With many collaboration tools, such as IBM Lotus Notes and SharePoint, slow performance over the WAN is a "dull throbbing headache" for IT departments, said Apurva Davé, vice president of product marketing at Riverbed.
"It just so happens that collaborative platforms get the worst of all worlds," Davé said. "[They've] got inefficient protocols but [are] also trying to move giant amounts of data. It's the equivalent of doing a multi-terabit backup of data across the wide area network."
When users revise and download the same document via SharePoint, WAN performance suffers because the application requests the entire file each time through thousands of transactions, Davé said.
Conversely, Riverbed WAN accelerators bundle protocols and cache each packet at the branch level from the first time it traverses the network, requiring the application only to request new packets from the remote server.
A presentation file with minor text revisions yet peppered with the same high-resolution company logo is "a classic example of redundant data," Davé said.
"[Adding bandwidth] doesn't fix that roundtrip time problem," he said. "Our technology automatically eliminates this duplicate data from having to travel over the WAN again and again."
Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, News Writer