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Where hardware is a hassle, virtual WAN optimization software succeeds

WAN optimization software run locally on virtual servers has given one global nonprofit the ability to improve productivity in some of the most underdeveloped parts of the globe.

As enterprises expand into emerging markets, executives will ask wide area network (WAN) managers to support branch offices in parts of the world with limited and erratic connectivity, few IT resources and border patrol red tape. The WAN manager for one global nonprofit organization who faces these issues daily learned long ago that faster WAN links or WAN optimization appliances were neither affordable nor practical. With virtual WAN optimization software running locally on virtual servers, he has improved WAN performance for offices in some of the most underdeveloped parts of the globe.

"We asked people to work slower. We really didn't have a workaround," said Ernest Ostro, director of information services at Pathfinder International, which delivers reproductive health and family planning services in developing countries. "In Mozambique … every evening when [one project manager] would get frustrated with the connection she had available there, she'd walk over to Save the Children, which has a satellite connection, and use their stuff." 

Pathfinder, which operates 40 branches in 24 countries, supports 900 users working in various project groups across Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America from its headquarters in Watertown, Mass. WAN connections in those regions are inconsistent at best -- affecting everything from file transfers to voice over IP (VoIP) calls on Skype, which the organization uses to minimize long-distance calls, according to Ostro.

"We have offices in places like Angola … Ghana or Nigeria, where five people sharing a 128K connection is considered successful," Ostro said. "It's all inconsistent -- different people have different latency, different people have different bandwidth, different people have different ISPs … [so] people aren't confident that they can always reach out and exchange information easily."

In areas where poor Internet and WAN connectivity made some branches so inefficient, Ostro and his team tried setting up local IT resources. This involved either traveling to far-flung locations with a crate of hardware to set up local file servers or shipping the equipment and asking local workers to set up the servers themselves.

Disconnecting branches from the WAN and keeping resources local prevented Ostro from being able to remotely administer them, leaving it to locals to install updates or troubleshoot problems. As a result, the organization has had to hire local IT consultants when serious problems arose.

Aside from the time and expense of such deployments, Ostro said transporting hardware across international lines can sometimes be held up by complications with local border patrol.

"We're still waiting for [one] customs [agency] to release a couple things we sent last May," he said. "We hand carry stuff now, but you can only carry on maybe a few laptops…. If you're trying to actually carry a whole server, that's not very popular."

Virtual WAN optimization software: Bringing connectivity back to far-flung branches

Before Ostro joined Pathfinder late last year, he said the IT organization had evaluated WAN optimization appliances from Riverbed Technology and Blue Coat Systems for its branches. Although the performance gains promised by vendors were attractive, the cost of the appliances and complexity of deploying them never made them a viable option, he said. 

We don't have to pay airfare [to deploy WAN optimization software], we don't have to pay the expenses of the trip and we can have local staff standing by or find consultants if there are not local people who are capable.

Ernest Ostro
Director of Information Services, Pathfinder International

With his eye on cost, flexibility and ease of deployment, Ostro evaluated and eventually deployed virtual WAN optimization software from Certeon that could run locally on virtual servers that were already hosting email or local files.

In addition to its Washington, D.C., office, where the virtual appliance was piloted, Ostro has also deployed Certeon's aCelera at branches in Yemen and Mozambique. He has scheduled further Certeon deployments in Kenya, Ethiopia, India, Nigeria and Vietnam within the next year.

Although he said it would be premature to measure performance gains, Ostro said the virtual WAN optimization software has delivered "significant" improvements in file sharing and email. Users have also reported anecdotally that Skype and other streaming media have improved, he said.

Deploying virtual WAN optimization software in a virtual environment has been as simple -- and inexpensive -- as remotely connecting to the physical server over the WAN, Ostro said.

Additionally, running virtual WAN optimization software on virtual servers instead of dedicated appliances has given Ostro more flexibility, which he said is imperative because Pathfinder's users and branches are somewhat transient -- one project may dismantle after five years due to lost funding while another pops up elsewhere thanks to a federal grant.

Aside from the cost of transporting hardware to a new site, Ostro would be required to account for every device with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), a federal agency overseeing civilian foreign aid. Because his virtual WAN optimization software license treats all of Pathfinder's operations as one site, Ostro said the auditing process will be much simpler.

"We need to set up fairly quickly," he said. "We don't have to pay airfare [to deploy WAN optimization software], we don't have to pay the expenses of the trip and we can have local staff standing by or find consultants if there are not local people who are capable."

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

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