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Translating Network Performance into Lower Costs
Reducing bandwidth costs, accelerating IT consolidation, and improving data recovery

The return on investment (ROI) for any given technology can be justified any number of ways, but in hard times the bottom line rules. Point to productivity improvements from better collaboration, and you'll get a polite hearing. Show hard dollar savings, and you are more likely to seal the deal.

WAN optimization technology is often sold on the basis of productivity improvements. Figure out a way to deliver higher performance over the limited bandwidth of a wide area network (WAN), and branch office employees will spend less time watching the hourglass spin on their computer screens while waiting for a report to download. That's nice, and all other things being equal, we'd like to eliminate some of those frustrations and help workers be more productive. But translate that into money saved or earned, and you've got a better business case.

Turns out there is a strong business case for WAN optimization on the basis of cost-cutting alone - and the good news is, you get the productivity improvements too. WAN optimization is all about doing more with what you've got, and the cost of the network optimization devices themselves is trivial in comparison with what you can save. The technology is built around a series of techniques for compressing and de-duplicating data, while eliminating unnecessary "chatter" in protocols that weren't designed to operate over long distances. With the right optimizations, enterprises can improve application performance across the network typically by five to 50 times, and in some cases up to 100 times, while simultaneously reducing WAN bandwidth utilization by 65 to 95%.

Some ways you can translate this into savings:

  • Reduce bandwidth costs: Optimization lets you defer WAN bandwidth upgrades that might otherwise be unavoidable due to demand from the field.
  • Consolidate infrastructure into the data center: Given an efficient WAN, it becomes practical to consolidate most or all of the servers that sit in branch offices, bringing them into central data centers. And you can do it without sacrificing performance.
  • Optimize disaster recovery and business continuity: For many organizations, the cost of downtime can be immense, and the loss of a day's worth of data could be fatal. Optimizing the WAN makes it practical to continuously replicate data to a remote facility, rather than relying on nightly network backups or backups to tape.

Let's look at each of these in turn.

When bandwidth is a constraint, the obvious answer is to buy more bandwidth. But in addition to being expensive in many parts of the world, that's often unnecessary. With WAN optimization, it's possible to make a T1 telecommunications line rated at about 1.5 Mbps deliver the equivalent of about 30 Mbps. So for a small capital investment in network equipment, you can avoid committing to a bigger monthly telecommunications bill.

For example, a Seattle-based consulting engineering firm was struggling with large file transfers between its offices before it invested in WAN optimization. But the company achieved payback on that investment within a month, and estimated its total savings at $400,000 a year.

Server consolidation is another way large organizations are pursuing cost savings, with or without WAN optimization. But the two things work better together. By consolidating IT infrastructure into fewer servers at fewer locations, overseen by fewer people, enterprises save on both hardware and maintenance costs.

In past years, many organizations tried to serve branch office employees better by providing them with local servers for routine functions such as email and file sharing. Performance was good because the applications were served across short distances on a fast local area network (LAN). Centralizing those applications without adequate planning is challenging. Employees who previously fetched their email from a local server will be quick to notice if it suddenly takes two or three times as long to download their messages.

WAN optimization can be used to solve those problems, but smart network managers deploy it proactively to prevent such problems from arising in the first place. But beyond being a solution, WAN optimization is also an enabler, allowing enterprises to pursue their consolidation plans more confidently and aggressively.

Extending consolidation to within the branch results in the serverless branch office - a location where the WAN optimization controller is just about the only thing left in the IT rack. Some of the newer, more sophisticated optimization devices deliver additional functions such as IP address management by providing a virtualization platform for these services, eliminating the need for a separate DNS/DHCP server. That may not seem like a big thing, but for large organizations little things add up. Consider that the list price of a server to support an office of 75 to 100 users is about $3,200, and the total cost of ownership (TCO) (factoring in maintenance, power, and so on) would be several times that. So the total cost of fielding Internet protocol (IP) address management servers alone might range from $140,000 for a midsize company to over $1 million for a larger one. You can do the same kind of math for other servers, like print servers.

A WAN optimization appliance is simply a preconfigured, function-specific server. By reserving a portion of the server to run virtualization software, it becomes possible to run services like print and IP management within virtual machines on that same box. Even services that are inherent to the local network and don't lend themselves to be consolidated at a central data center can be run on the same device that runs the WAN optimization software.

A different sort of cost equation comes into play when we talk about disaster recovery and business continuity. The most significant costs here are related to business interruptions and the loss of data. For example, a Charlotte, North Carolina-based architectural firm with 300 employees estimated that a single day's worth of lost data would cost the firm $200,000. Part of what this firm used WAN optimization for was making sure it would never have a day's worth of exposure. By continuously replicating data to a backup facility, the firm reduced its backup windows from four hours to five minutes.

Reducing bandwidth costs, accelerating IT consolidation, and improving data recovery are just a few of the ways WAN optimization cuts costs and lets an enterprise function more efficiently. While they may not be quite as easy to quantify, the productivity benefits of the technology follow close behind. Employees will collaborate better across the organization because the tools you've given them work faster and more reliably on an optimized network, and some of those collaborations will need new products and strategies that make the company more profitable.

All those benefits will come, in time, if you start by focusing on the bottom line.

About Naveen Prabhu
Naveen Prabhu is the Product Marketing Manager for Steelhead product family at Riverbed Technology, where he specializes in mobile technology, virtualization, and data center initiatives. His previous professional experience includes roles at Packet Design Inc. and WindRiver Systems (now Intel), where he managed various product teams. Naveen's interests lie in all things technology , marketing and the convergence of the two. He received an MS in Electrical Engineering from the University of Southern California and a BE in Electronics from the University of Mumbai (India).

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