Installing WAN optimization appliances often silences the complaints of users at remote offices about slow application performance across the wide area network (WAN). But how do you know whether you're getting the best return on investment (ROI) from this technology? WAN performance monitoring tools can ensure that administrators get the most bang for their WAN optimization buck.
"Once you start to accelerate traffic, sometimes [optimized traffic] is blind to the network monitoring products, so there needs to be an integration point between the visibility and the WAN optimization product," said Lucinda Borovick, a vice president at IDC. "You can use these products to benchmark the performance of what you architecture."
Using a WAN performance monitoring tool can help WAN administrators to "stay ahead of problems by being able to see and predict" future performance issues, Borovick said.
"The quick thing to do is to put in a WAN optimization product. You put it in and everything is faster," she said. "That's great, but I think most companies would rather have a little bit more of a strategic view of the network -- interaction between applications and users, between users and specific servers, and even between servers."
WAN engineers should look for a WAN performance monitoring product that can crunch more than optimized traffic, Borovick said. It should see through optimized traffic and be able to understand how the network itself is performing and also how the applications are performing, in order to avoid skewing the analysis.
"What I've heard from [users] is that the help desk gets a call and someone says, 'The network is slow,' so the network guys run around trying to figure out why the network is slow," she said. "But then a little later, they find out it was an application that was slowing things down…. [WAN performance monitoring] might not be sexy, but it's very useful."
WAN performance monitoring can work with WAN optimization solutions
Tom Prokop, manager of infrastructure and remote services for CONSOL Energy, a large coal-mining company based in Canonsburg, Pa., has made few changes to his network architecture since deploying a WAN performance monitoring tool last summer. But the insight into user and application behavior is just as valuable, he added, given that the WAN services thousands of employees.
"CONSOL has about 80 remote locations. On any given day, we probably have users calling up saying, 'Why is this application slow?' and 'Why did it take longer to do this today?'" Prokop said. "What we started to want was to have a tool to get our baseline network performance to say, yes, that user is having a problem, or no, it's his imagination."
Less than a year after deploying Riverbed Technology's WAN optimization box, Steelhead, the networking team at CONSOL trialed the latest version of Riverbed's WAN performance monitoring product, Cascade, which Riverbed acquired with its purchase of Mazu Networks in February 2009.
As part of its 8.4 release available now, Cascade added analytics for application throughput, individual user connection throughput and the time that transaction-oriented applications take to complete their requests, throughout headquarters and branch offices, according to Yoav Eilat, director of product marketing.
Cascade works in conjunction with Steelhead, living inside the Riverbed Services Platform -- a virtualized platform in Steelhead that enables customers to run up to five additional services and applications virtually on VMware in a protected partition.
The WAN performance monitoring tool also "learns" normal behavior for applications on the network and alerts an administrator when one wavers outside of its usual performance, Eilat said. The sensors come as part of the Riverbed Services Platform -- a free upgrade for existing customers or $495 per site, plus the cost of the platform.
"If I were ever to do another WAN optimization deployment, I would always insist this [WAN performance monitoring] tool go in first," said Prokop, who chose Cascade over products from Hewlett-Packard and CA Inc. for the granularity of its analytics.
Among other competing WAN optimization vendors, Blue Coat Systems also offers a WAN performance monitoring tool, PacketShaper, to give visibility into optimized and non-optimized traffic.
WAN performance monitoring can also help enterprises avoid pricey WAN optimization solutions when they aren't the best option, according to Steve House, director of product marketing at Blue Coat. He said one enterprise customer discovered that Facebook usage had clogged up 70% of the link to its remote office in South Africa.
In that vein, CONSOL Energy's networking team hopes better WAN performance monitoring will also improve "the mean time to innocence" for its department, Prokop said.
"When something goes wrong, rather than taking the blame themselves, [users] blame the poor network engineers -- 'If we had a faster network, we wouldn't have this problem,'" he said.
Dave Larson, director of infrastructure and customer services in the IT department at CONSOL, said, "Now we have an analytical tool to counter any claims that the performance was terrible."
Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, News Writer