Speed Up Your Remote Connections

Remote workers often find it slow going when accessing the company network. WAN acceleration can boost the transfer speed, and though some disagree, it's not just a big-biz technology anymore.
Posted September 28, 2007
By

Drew Robb

Drew Robb


Have you ever been out in the field and tried to connect to the organization’s file server over the Internet? Or tried to access the database from hundreds of miles away? Or perhaps open and run an important business application remotely? If it took ages to open a document, access an application or view a database record, then you could well do with Wide Area Network (WAN) acceleration.

Apurva Dave, director of product marketing at Riverbed Technology Inc., said that WAN acceleration is for companies with distributed workers, and that it's effective in three different scenarios:
  1. You have multiple offices that connect through a private network or through a public network connection like DSL.
  2. You have one office, but you have workers who use their laptop on the road or at home. They connect through wi-fi hotspots or standard DSL/cable.
  3. You have a secondary location that acts as a backup in the event of a disaster. This might be as simple as a secondary server in another facility that regularly backs up your files and applications.

In essence, WAN acceleration is a means of avoiding the heavy cost of acquiring more bandwidth. Instead of expanding the amount of network presence, this technology optimizes the existing network. It accomplishes this by using techniques such as compressing the traffic that is crossing the WAN, caching and accelerating the applications involved by improving their performance.

Caching, for example, keeps copies of frequently used files in remote offices, so that when you try to access the files you receive a local copy from memory rather than having to download it over the network. This works well for file sharing, but sometimes doesn't work so well for Web-based applications or e-mail systems.

Wide-area data services (WADS), on the other hand, can accelerate most applications. This method combines intelligent data reduction to save bandwidth, and protocol optimization to make communications more efficient over WAN connections. This is said to save sixty to ninety five percent of bandwidth use.

Too Much Tech?
Unfortunately, this technology has largely been the province of larger enterprises — the systems and appliances involved could run into the six-figure range. And unlike Apurva Dave, not everyone agrees that this technology is a fit for small business.

“We do not sell into the SMB space — all our end users have WAN connections of 30 Mbps or more,” said Jeff Aaron, a spokesperson for Silver Peak Systems Inc. “Some of these enterprises do have smaller branch offices in addition to larger links, but as a whole they would not qualify under the SMB definition.”

This fits in with the experience of Chip Nickolett, owner of systems integrator Comprehensive Consulting Solutions Inc.

“There may be a niche for WAN acceleration in mid-market companies, but SMBs probably won’t see the value or won’t be able to afford it,” said Nickolett. “That will hopefully change as prices for bandwidth and hardware continue to decrease, but it could be years before we see a big shift in behavior.”

Some, But Not All
That shift is definitely on the way, however. Riverbed Technology, for example, now sells into the SMB market. Its Steelhead Mobile product is designed for a small office and mobile workers who want to connect over the WAN.

The Riverbed Steelhead 100 appliance comes in a cable-modem sized box and supports up to 1 Mbps optimized throughput and supports five people. The device lists for $3,495. You need a minimum of two devices — one at each end of a WAN connection.

Steelhead Mobile, another Riverbed product, is a software solution that installs directly on a mobile worker's laptop, and it accelerates application performance from anywhere - the airport, the cafe, or the customer site. This approach requires the end user software, a minimum of one Steelhead appliance and the Steelhead Mobile Controller. This costs $12,995 for the Steelhead Mobile Controller and $3,495 for the smallest Steelhead appliance. It lets small businesses accelerate a mix of small branch offices and mobile workers.

“Two SMBs that use our products are AccuVal associates (an 80-person investment advisory firm) and JEO Consulting (a 120-person consulting firm),” said Dave. "They use both our Steelhead appliances and Steelhead Mobile, and can be used by organizations that have minimal IT staff."

He admits there is a little work to configure each device that uses the system, about 15 minutes each. After that, he said installation is as simple as plugging in two wires. You may need to spend 10 to 15 minutes monthly reviewing data to see performance levels.

”Most businesses have standardized on an appliance to support branch offices and headquarters. It's the easiest approach to deploying quickly,” said Dave. ”But appliances can't go everywhere, so for very small (one- or two-person) offices, and mobile workers, small businesses are quickly realizing that a mobile solution is critical.”

RocketStream Blasts Off for SMBs
But Riverbed isn’t the only game in town for small business WAN Acceleration. RocketStream Inc., for instance, believes that more must be done to make WAN acceleration accessible to a large number of companies.

“WAN appliances are usually price-prohibitive for companies with fewer than 500 employees at a single location,” said Steffen Koehler, chief marketing officer at RocketStream. “You really need a large concentration of employees in one physical location to get enough scale to justify a WAN appliance.”

That, he said, is the reason why WAN appliances are far more common in large enterprises than in the SMB market. And the few small businesses that have WAN appliances usually need them because they absolutely need to use distributed application software. This is typically restricted to highly technical firms.

When most small companies are talking about WANs, then, they are just talking about the public Internet or VPNs running over the Internet. After all, only large enterprises generally need and can afford to set up and run their own private WANs. Whether SMBs would benefit from acceleration of the public Wide Area Network, therefore, is really down to whether they move large amounts of data over large distances.

“If you only send e-mail or all of your business is in the same city, you probably don’t need acceleration,” said Koehler. “But if you send large files (video, financial data, scientific data, disaster backup information, etc.) over long distances (outside your metropolitan area), then using plain old TCP is probably slowing you down.”

The company’s products — RocketStream Uplink, Station and Server — are all priced based on data rate. For the low end of the market, all three of these products apply at slower speeds. The entry-level product, for instance, is geared to T1 (1.5 Mbps), DSL, and cable modem connections, which are the connections more commonly used by small businesses, SOHO and remote workers. RocketStream Uplink is the client, RocketStream Server is for a server, and RocketStream Station is a combination of a client and a server in one package.

RocketStream Station and Uplink are designed for people with no IT training. According to Koehler, the software can be installed within five minutes and requires no maintenance. An IT administrator, on the other hand, usually installs RocketStream Server, though it does not require much ongoing support.

“Our smallest customer right now is an company in Michigan that makes industrial flow control products,” said Koehler. “They have remote design centers in Bulgaria and Germany with whom they exchange software, factory information and sales information on a regular basis.”

He cautions small businesses to avoid WAN appliances in most cases, as they can be overly expensive as well as complex to implement.

Drew Robb is a Los Angeles-based freelancer specializing in technology and engineering. Originally from Scotland, he graduated with a degree in geology from Glasgow's Strathclyde University. In recent years he has authored hundreds of articles as well as the book, Server Disk Management by CRC Press.

This article was first published on SmallBusinessComputing.com.





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