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Look beyond WAN application delivery to improve user experience

WAN managers must improve user experience by spending as much time listening to end users as they do optimizing WAN application delivery, according to recent research.

Before a manufacturer brings a new product to market, it gets extensive feedback from customers. Wide area network managers should do the same thing when delivering services to end users. WAN managers can improve user experience by spending as much time listening to end users as they do optimizing network devices and WAN application delivery.

"The problem with monitoring application performance is it's not very subjective," said Eugene Alfaro, manager of global IT operations and support at Simpson Manufacturing Company Inc., a global building products manufacturer based in Pleasanton, Calif. "It sounds kind of weird to say that … but the only way to measure the true user experience is to look at it from the user's perspective -- not the systems' perspective."

Wide area networks designed around optimizing application delivery are going to fall short as business and IT environments continue to evolve to support mobility, consolidation and cloud computing, according to Andre Kindness, senior analyst at Forrester Research, who recently published a  research note on this subject, "Focus Your Network Strategy on User Experience, Not Application Delivery."

This user experience focus represents a sharp detour from the message promoted by WAN optimization, performance management and monitoring vendors. Those vendors say WAN managers need to shift their focus from packet loss and latency to WAN application delivery and performance. Kindness said vendors and IT managers need to take that one step further and focus on improving the overall user experience.

"You can see that's changing … because now network management tools no longer just focus up to Layer 4. If you look at vendors like Network Instruments or Fluke [Networks], everybody's creating these dashboards that report about the application," he said. "They're all talking the application talk because of [changes in] the data center. That's going to evolve into … user experiences as well. I'm not saying that's happening today. Networking is just barely getting to the application talk, but they'll be forced to do it."

WAN application delivery and optimization vendors will have to account for the fact that users are becoming more dispersed, mobile and transient, Kindness said. The types of workers in branch offices are also more diverse than they used to be in traditional sales offices, which has spawned a greater diversity of applications and business processes delivered across the WAN, he added.

This diversity of services and processes makes it impossible for enterprises to apply a single policy profile for a branch office WAN optimization appliance, Kindness said.

"You can't just have a static thing in there that says, 'I'm only going to give 5 megs of bandwidth to these [applications],'" he said.

A synthetic transaction only tries, at best, to mimic a common user activity but cannot really do any variable transactions.... It's like getting a robotic wife to practice being married.

Eugene Alfaro
Manager of Global IT Operations and Support, Simpson Manufacturing Company Inc.

WAN managers need more intelligent tools that can be configured to "know" that a group of engineers all download the same large file in the morning and need priority for optimization then, whereas the finance department that always does data entry midday should see their ERP application prioritized at that time, Kindness said.

"The [WAN] optimization [vendors] have just been thinking about this from the point of, 'Let's just make sure the application gets there,' but you really can't look at that," Kindness said. "You really need to understand your user base and what's going on and how your company is doing things. You can't just look at things at an application level."

How do you measure, improve user experience over the WAN?

Measuring WAN application delivery and performance can be as easy as pinging the application server. Measuring user experience is more art than science, said Alfaro, who has focused his virtual desktop strategy on user experience over the WAN at Simpson Manufacturing.

IT managers often mistakenly believe that the end user must be happy if a server is performing well and the WAN is free of bottlenecks, Alfaro said. This narrow view can prove painful for users of real-time applications over the WAN -- such as virtual desktops -- but it can also affect the user experience for any network activity due to latency or application chattiness, he said.

"I'd love a [WAN] monitoring system that goes all the way from the server -- its CPU resources and memory resources -- and measures the amount of time that transacts in the data center, combines that with the amount of time it takes to get to the user's endpoint … and combines that with the amount of time it takes to display to the user," he said. "And ideally, I'd like to have a chip in the [user's] brain."

Though cyborg implants aren't in his budget this year, Alfaro has used the synthetic transaction tests in Microsoft's System Center Operations Manager (SCOM) to assess and improve user experience for virtual desktops across the WAN. The tool is imperfect but better than nothing, he said.

"It's like getting a robotic wife to practice being married," Alfaro said. "It's repeating the same operation every time, and there is no creativity about the user's unique thoughts and behavior…. A synthetic transaction only tries, at best, to mimic a common user activity but cannot really do any variable transactions."

Kindness said vendors should consolidate application delivery controllers (ADC) and WAN optimization appliances into a single platform that uses information about the user's identity, location and device to make intelligent decisions about WAN application delivery and performance. The industry also needs to develop a de facto standard for evaluating user experience, like mean opinion scores (MOS) for voice, he said.

While waiting for WAN application delivery, optimization and monitoring vendors to respond to this need, WAN managers can begin their strategy by starting a dialogue with end users -- much like how consumer goods manufacturers use focus groups for their products, Kindness said.

"The hardware's not there, the software's not there, but once people start thinking about it and pushing their vendors, they'll make that happen -- and the only way to do that is to bring in the end user to the experience," Kindness said. "It's about opening the dialogue. It's starting to happen in other areas [of IT, but] networking isn't there."

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

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