His only choice was to centralize.
''We deal with large autoCAD and rendering programs -- big graphical files that aren't just text,'' says France, CIO at Little Diversified Architecture Consulting, LLC in Charlotte, N.C.
''We needed to balance the workload, but we couldn't. If we had an architect in Charlotte who was bogged down with work, we couldn't pull in someone from Los Angeles because the files being sent back and forth would have clogged the pipes,'' he adds.
While the company had T-1 speed connections secured by virtual private networks at each site, its 350 users still had trouble sharing data via distributed file servers. In fact, a single file could take more than 10 minutes to travel across the WAN. And with all his IT staff at headquarters in Charlotte, he had nobody in the field to manage the various data silos.
''It was horrendous. You couldn't get anything done,'' he says.
France decided to take a dramatic step and centralize all data, and deliver it to remote locations via wide-area file services [WAFS] appliances. He rolled out Riverbed Technology, Inc.'s 1000 Series and 3000 Series Steelhead appliances in each of the company's sites, as well as a central management console at the Charlotte headquarters.
''All data is basically centralized, but it looks distributed to the end user,'' he says. France installed the appliances over an MPLS network.
Rather than sending full files across the wide area as distributed file servers do, WAFS systems use a combination of compression, protocol optimization and pattern recognition to reduce the amount of data that has to be sent and received, according to Alan Saldich, vice president of marketing at Riverbed in San Francisco. These techniques decrease bandwidth needs, minimize latency and improve the inefficiency of chatty protocols, such as CIFS, he says.
He adds that the benefits of WAFS go beyond collaboration.
''It allows for version control, consolidation of IT resources, and better storage backup,'' he says.
''Although storage protocols were not designed for real-time usage over the wide area -- they are chatty, slow and inefficient -- IT managers still want data nirvana. That is, instead of growing storage in 100 places, you grow it in one,'' says Tony Taddei, director of marketing communications at Tacit Networks, Inc., a maker of WAFS systems in South Plainfield, N.J.
Taddei says pressure from compliance and security mandates also are pushing IT managers to closely monitor and manage their data stores. Doing this with data strewn across remote offices is difficult and most companies can't keep up with the costs of maintaining those distributed silos.
''Companies can end up paying outsourcers hundreds of dollars per month per site to come on-site and backup tapes,'' he says. Or, they have someone who is not skilled in IT backing up the tapes incorrectly. ''Instead of having ad-hoc backup procedures at each location, you can have a highly robust process across the board,'' he says.
Eric Ogren, senior analyst at Enterprise Strategies Group in Milford, Mass., says WAFS is catching on. ''Companies may generally like having data near where it's used, but that's an administrative pain in the neck,'' he says.
But Ogren warns that companies must do some careful calculations before requiring all their data to be accessed over a wide-area link. ''If you're a bank, you might want to keep a certain amount of customer data in the local office. You might need instant access for customer service even if your WAN link is down,'' he says.
Whatever you choose to do with the data, Ogren says management of the data and resources must be centralized. ''It's important for the whole flow of business. Security, file access and disaster recovery should be linked throughout the entire organization,'' he says.
For Chris France, wide-area file services have translated into hard and soft savings.
''I am spending $9,000 a month for WAN telecom costs at all locations to get the performance that previously would have cost me $27,000 a month. More importantly, my company can now utilize all of our intellectual assets to collaborate and bring in more business,'' he says.