After years of consolidating IT resources as much as possible, employees are adopting laptops, smartphones, tablets, Wi-Fi and 4G to become increasingly mobile. These same empowered users are also signing up for cloud services, pushing applications and data further away. The future of work belongs to far-flung employees accessing applications and data from everywhere possible, oftentimes at great distances.
Today IT needs to ensure performance and availability in an increasingly mobile and cloudy world. The good news is that WAN optimization solutions are combining tried-and-true techniques with emerging deployment, QoS and path selection techniques that allow IT to keep performance high in today's modern enterprise.
Nobody likes skilled workers sitting idle for extended periods, but that is often the case when dispersed employees cannot work because of a slow network connection or an unresponsive application. We must ensure employees get the reliable, effective, secure applications they need. After all, these handy mobile devices and the applications they access are only convenient and productive when they function with vigor.
WAN optimization must go further
Most network engineers are already familiar with WAN optimization. To accelerate a sluggish network, you typically install appliances in the data center and in branch offices. WAN optimization provides three primary benefits: 1) bandwidth reduction through de-duplication, where redundant requests for data are eliminated; 2) latency mitigation through network protocol optimizations, where inefficiencies are streamlined; and 3) additional latency mitigation through application-specific optimizations, where chatty application protocols and unique behaviors are addressed. With very little fuss, bandwidth is reduced by up to 98% and performance is improved anywhere from 50100 times, perhaps more.
But with today's decentralized and mobile workforce, WAN optimization must go further. Acceleration between a mobile user or branch office and the cloud is markedly different than doing so between the branch office and your own data center. And we must deploy techniques above and beyond de-duplication and protocol optimization because, in many cases, software-as-a-service (SaaS) applications cannot be optimized by the three techniques above. There are three additional capabilities that are needed to ensure a fast and productive user experience.
WAN optimization capability #1: two new deployment flavors
Let's say, for example, your company uses cloud-based Microsoft Office 365 to deploy applications such as Exchange and SharePoint. One option is to have your own dedicated instance of Office 365 hosted by Microsoft. In this case, you can opt for a virtual WAN optimization form factor at the cloud data center that points back to your WAN optimization appliances at your offices.
But what happens if you want a true public cloud version of Microsoft 365? A virtual WAN optimization solution can't be deployed as part of the standard, multi-tenant cloud environment. In this case you'll want to opt for a cloud-based WAN optimization service.
Your mobile or branch office worker will access the Internet, the WAN-optimization-as-a-service will then accelerate that user as he traverses the Internet before handing it off to Microsoft's cloud data center. Here, only the "first mile" and "last mile" (the short connection from the user to the Internet and the Internet to the data center) are left un-optimized; the majority of the connection is accelerated by the cloud-based WAN optimization service.
Why it matters: Both the virtual and cloud-based form factors help lower the cost of WAN optimization by giving more flexible deployment options. You can deploy dedicated appliances when user and performance needs require it, while supplementing them with virtual and cloud form factors when economics or application types warrant it.
WAN optimization capability #2: Quality of Service
Network engineers should also consider quality of service (QoS) and decide which applications and services deserve specific amounts of bandwidth. You're prioritizing traffic to guarantee a high level of performance for specific mission-critical applications. Other non-essential (usually personal or recreational in nature) applications get a lower priority.
Traditionally, video and voice have topped the priority list, but as companies change the way they do business they should prioritize cloud-based services too, like Office 365 and Salesforce.com. You will need to decide which Internet-based applications and services drive the most value and assign those higher bandwidth. Turn to application monitoring tools to sort through all the data to make the right choices for your network and business.
Why it matters: QoS techniques help avoid unnecessary bandwidth upgrades by ensuring business-critical applications are not competing for valuable network resources. Moreover, QoS gives IT teams a way of aligning network and applications with business requirements, a critical component in providing a superior user experience.
WAN optimization capability #3: Path selection
Complementary to quality of service is the concept of path selection, which is essentially quality of path. Like QoS, path selection allows you to prioritize which traffic traverses which network link. You can send traffic out on a specific link based on performance, cost, security or availability criteria.
For example, traditionally we would backhaul Internet traffic across a private network, then send it off to the Internet, then route it back across the private network to the end user. Since these secure links are often quite expensive, the economics of this approach are poor. Plus, the user experience is terrible. Because so much Internet traffic is now mission-critical applications, this double trip of Internet traffic just clogs the central network when a direct-to-net link would be faster and more cost effective.
Let's examine another practical application of path selection. Consider a law firm paying for expensive 15Mbps MPLS connections from all of its offices back to its data centers. A WAN optimization solution with path selection found that a large amount of branch traffic is to the Internet for applications such as Office 365 or cloud-based document management. The firm realized if they cut those connections to 8Mbps, with the money saved they could then get 45Mpbs direct Internet connections at each location. Now they get 53Mbps aggregate bandwidth at zero additional cost. Equally important, the direct-to-Internet user experience can be made faster and more reliable with the deployment and QoS options detailed above.
Why it matters: Path selection is perhaps the most powerful tool for IT teams looking to radically change the experience and economics of emerging cloud and Internet applications. It allows IT to embrace direct Internet and Internet VPNs without having to sacrifice performance requirements. Unlike router-based approaches, some WAN optimization approaches abstract path selection and leverage unique application-level knowledge that routers don't have.
If done properly, traditional WAN optimization techniques combined with emerging deployment form factors, quality of service and path selection can give a remote work force even more opportunities for being productive out in the field away from company headquarters. These new capabilities also help align IT when the business inevitably asks you to "move to the cloud" and "go mobile," but in a way where IT can still architect high-performance access to applications and data.
Read more about lan and wan in Network World's LAN & WAN section.