Want WAN Optimization?

It's no secret that mobile and remote workers now make up a huge chunk of the workforce, but many companies lack the connectivity and consistent access to applications to give these workers the support they get working in the office.

In a recent survey of more than 300 IT decision makers in seven countries, Forrester Research found that 81 percent of organizations have branch offices, with more than 30 percent indicating they support more than 100 branch locations. Further complicating things, 40 percent of the respondents to Forrester's survey said their organizations would be more decentralized three years from now. The survey also found less than 30 percent of employees work at corporate headquarters, meaning employees require network access from branches, home and other external work sites.

"Users and applications are being pulled further apart," according to the survey. "On one end you have virtualization and consolidation efforts that are centralizing applications and data into fewer locations; on the other, you have users that are becoming increasingly distributed across work sites."

Solution providers agree that the distributed workforce is making an impact on their clients, prompting many to turn to WAN optimization to speed up and improve application performance over the WAN to accommodate mobility and distribution.

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Hayes Drumwright, CEO of Trace|3, an Irvine, Calif.-based solution provider, said his clients look toward WAN optimization to stave off costly WAN upgrades and to cut down on application latency. In many cases, the ROI for WAN optimization can be anywhere from three to four months. If WAN optimization is deployed instead of a WAN upgrade, ROI can be reduced to 60 days or fewer, he said.

"It speeds everything up, reduces the complexity and massively simplifies the environment," Drumwright said. "This is a paradigm-shifting technology. It completely changes the way people are going to work."

Using techniques like caching, protocol optimization, compression and traffic management, WAN optimization aids users in connecting to the network and accessing information regardless of the access network from which they originate and can guarantee a consistent experience inside and outside the organization. WAN optimization can iron out performance wrinkles regardless of locations. Mobile WAN optimization, Forrester said, is a cost-effective way of accelerating applications where a software agent is more feasible than a hardware appliance on the remote end.

In addition, WAN optimization decreases overall WAN utilization, freeing up bandwidth, especially for companies whose mobile WAN is too latent or congested to support new line-of-business applications. WAN optimization can also offer data acceleration for backup and replication software. And using a mobile WAN optimization agent can offer the same benefit to any remote user.

In the Forrester survey, 48 percent of respondents already have WAN optimization or acceleration tools in place, and 40 percent of respondents said WAN optimization is "absolutely a strategic component to today's distributed and mobile environments."

When choosing a WAN optimization solution, Forrester recommends three steps.

First, companies should buy now and plan for tomorrow. Forrester rsays selecting a WAN optimization solution should take into account more than just the applications that need to be accelerated now, but also the applications that will be deployed in the future.

"WAN optimization, when properly applied, will work to improve the experience of users on the network, ensuring peak performance from any location, on any access network, as well as the performance of specific applications those users are attempting to access," the report said.

But companies must plan for how their WAN optimization deployment will scale both up and out, meaning the technology will support more applications over time and an increasing amount of data, while also supporting an increase in users. Forrester recommends choosing a solution that understands the software agent and has a plan for how the agent can be deployed and supported on a large number of remote laptops and desktops and a vendor that understands branch and mobile workers so it can scale out with users and provide a consistent experience.

Tim Hebert, president and CEO of Atrion Networking, a Warwick, R.I.-based solution provider, said solving today's problems while predicting tomorrow's is key not only for end users, but for the VARs that are selling into them.

"If I'm trying to maintain a relationship with a customer, I want to make sure they have a long-term solution for today and for the future," he said. Hebert added that a lot of users today are buying into the hype surrounding WAN optimization and are looking to solve the pain they feel now, instead of considering what's coming down the road.

NEXT: VARs Can Help Clients Figure Optimization Strategy

Second, Forrester recommends paying attention to "what's under the hood" and looking at more than just the optimization of network traffic. Solutions should be evaluated based on the underlying appliance architecture and the chosen vendor should support clustering and redundancy to ensure reliability, Forrester recommended.

"WAN optimization will become a critical part of your mobile architecture, and potential failure may cause your traffic load to extend beyond your network's capacity," Forrester cautioned. "Also, pick an appliance that fits into existing security architectures that ensure that SSL-encrypted traffic can still be accelerated for your mobile apps."

Hebert said VARs have to help their clients figure out whether they are accelerating or managing traffic with their WAN optimization solution and ensure they're doing both. He added that visibility into the traffic is a huge element as well; otherwise users will have to revisit WAN optimization again and possibly pony up for a new solution if those needs aren't met off the bat.

Drumwright said testing WAN optimization solutions before deploying is imperative to ensure they can scale. He said oftentimes solutions that run fine two three or four branches peter out when deployed to over six sites.

"Looking under the hood, I'm a huge proponent of that," he said. "Testing is the right thing to do. For a technology that is considered cutting edge, it's important that people either buy the market leader or really evaluate the solutions."

For Jeff Wolach, vice president and CTO of Sinnott Wolach Technology Group, a Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.-based service provider, said looking under the hood has a different meaning to him. He said his first step is to evaluate and asses a client's network to determine what, if any, WAN optimization tool is appropriate.

"The hood for us is what's traversing a customer's network and their wide area network," he said. "We need to understand the applications and what customers need. What is it they're trying to accelerate? Is the traffic able to be accelerated? Maybe it's just a matter of applications that should be on the network -" recreational or peer to peer "- that are clogging the pipe."

Lastly, Forrester recommends companies should pick a vendor with operational maturity. Since no two WANs are alike, that means no two WAN optimization solutions are the same. Organizations should work with a vendor that has experience solving the specific needs of the company or industry to ensure long-term support and ensure performance issues don't pop up over time.

"Make sure the vendor has plenty of references in your industry that can attest to support," Forrester advised. "Otherwise, you may get stuck with a networking vendor that doesn't truly understand how to support a software agent or specific acceleration tricks that need to be applied to the nuances of a mobile environment."

Trace|3, which is a partner for WAN optimization vendor Riverbed, also recommends clients get at minimum of three references from companies of similar or larger sizes.

"Reference selling in a new market is significantly important," Drumwright said.

Hebert said before Atrion offers WAN optimization solutions to clients, it conducts bake offs to ensure where it fits best.

"Before we introduce it to clients, we have a huge side-by-side comparison," he said. "From a reseller standpoint, we can't just add it to the line and sell it."

Hebert added that it's not always the biggest vendor that offers the most complete WAN optimization solution.

"Look at the vendor," he said. "The size doesn't always dictate how good the solution is. Does the vendor truly understand your need and your environment? Does this vendor or product run the whole gamut and cover you for problems down the road?"

Wolach, a reseller of Packeteer WAN optimization tools, agreed.

"Seek the most mature vendor out there based on their presence in the market and their leadership and history in that space," he recommended. "Evaluate several vendors to understand what technology meets your criteria and determine what companies have a roadmap for taking their products into the future."