Taryn L. Clouse was nervous when her boss gave her only a few weeks to figure out how to improve wide area network (WAN) application performance without having to invest heavily in new network infrastructure or bandwidth upgrades.
Linemen at the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) -- a nonprofit federal electric utility based in Portland, Oregon -- couldn't access an asset management application on their mobile devices in the field, Clouse said.
"We're investing millions [in our WAN] … and users can't access the software," she said. "They can't access it at all. I've gone to some of our worst network sites and… it's terrible. These applications are too chatty."
As the utility's IT project manager, she needed to ensure that users could quickly and easily punch in critical data from BPA's transmission towers in the field.
It's an old tale for WAN managers -- the great IT divide between application developers and networking pros. When the two teams don't collaborate, enterprises often wind up with applications that perform beautifully in sanitized lab environments but break across the WAN.
But transaction-heavy, or "chatty," apps aren't the only reason why enterprises now struggle with poor WAN application performance, according to Mark Fabbi, vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner Inc., who addressed the topic at Improving Application Performance in a Distributed World, a session at Gartner's recent Wireless, Networking & Communications Summit in San Diego.
Mobility, cloud computing and the ongoing migration to Web-based apps are changing the way enterprises tackle WAN application performance, Fabbi said. As an analyst, he was once able to counsel clients on which apps could and should be optimized by assessing user location and IT control.
But he said those decisions must now factor in what might be foreign territory for networking pros used to working at the bottom of the OSI model and who now much consider application, business process and client device.
"You should be spending more time thinking about this and less time thinking about switching and routing. The [goal] is to not commoditize what you do," Fabbi said. "Once you get the network stable, throwing more resources and throwing more money at Layer 2 and Layer 3 doesn't make much difference."
'Red flag' trends affecting WAN application performance
There are about a half-dozen "red flag" trends that are going to force networking pros to invest more time in optimizing WAN application performance, Fabbi said.
Enterprises' "continued migration to browser-based apps" ranks as one of the top challenges to WAN application performance, he said. Aside from the issue of latency -- occurring because users are no longer accessing apps from the corporate data center down the hall -- bandwidth is getting chewed up as Web designs grow more complex.
"Things keep getting tougher and tougher, and so in some ways, it's a moving target," Fabbi said. "Each of those [additional webpage] objects represents more control plane traffic … so the control plane gets more and more complex here."
Advances in cellular networks and cloud computing have enabled mobile users to access apps via smartphones or laptop dongles over 3G networks. But users accessing apps via 3G experience a 15-millisecond delay at best, meaning that an enterprise app hosted in a data center down the street and accessed via mobile broadband suffers latency equivalent to a cross-continent transaction, Fabbi said.
It can be frustrating for networking pros, who have little control over how service provider networks route traffic, he said. Technology used in next-generation mobile networks, known as 4G, is expected to chop down that roundtrip delay to 10 milliseconds.
These issues are compounding some of the classic challenges facing WAN application performance, including a lack of collaboration between application development and networking teams, Fabbi said.
"I was dealing with a bunch of CIOs up in Ottawa not too long ago, and there was one of the CIOs [who] said, 'Oh, the cloud will handle all of this stuff for us,'" he said. "In fact, no, the cloud makes things more complex from a [WAN application] delivery performance perspective."
Solving WAN application performance problems
On the networking side, IT shops can help improve WAN application performance by using WAN emulators, Fabbi said. These devices can be tuned to simulate the experience for a remote user in a branch office in China with a 100-megabit pipe, giving a lifelike picture of WAN application performance.
Before buying WAN optimization or application delivery controllers to improve WAN application performance, he said, enterprises must assess the business process to determine whether it's worth the investment.
A symmetrical WAN optimization product -- one that requires appliances in the data center and branch offices -- does nothing to help teleworkers access apps over the Internet, Fabbi said. In addition, IT shops may be using an appliance only for load balancing and may be unaware that it can also function as an application delivery controller.
Beyond the technical solutions, IT shops with WAN application performance issues can lobby for a new position to bridge networking and app dev -- an application delivery specialist, or someone with dual expertise who can serve as the liaison between the two teams to fill "the whitespace in between," Fabbi said.
"It was just so intriguing to hear that you could perhaps change the way the application behaves," said Clouse, the IT project manager looking to improve WAN application performance for linemen at the electric utility where she works. "I'm going to talk to my CIO and say he needs to [hire an] application delivery specialist."
Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, News Writer