Local access and rapid data delivery for new branch office locations continue to be a thorn in my side. In regard to local access, the local exchange carriers usually have a lock on it and there is typically no redundancy or diversity, lest one go to great expense to install a private Sonet ring.
Rapid delivery of network services must be a figment of my imagination unless of course I can live with the 30 to 45 days it normally takes to provision a Frame Relay circuit. Surely, there must be an answer.
Alternative Last Mile Access, Is It a Myth?
Frankly, I am weary of hearing the empty promises from the major long haul carriers about alternative access for the last mile. I firmly believe that the current direction of MCI and AT&T to merge with the RBOC’s will kill any notion of providing alternative access in their respective markets. Why should they, as local access has been a cash cow for the RBOC’s ever since divestiture. This Regionalized Monopoly which AT&T and MCI are building today will surely result in higher prices and the lackluster service that we are experiencing today is sure to deteriorate further.
Recently my CIO laid down the gauntlet and challenged me to take a look at VSAT (very small aperture terminal). Back in the “old days” when networks were based on a store and forward architecture to accommodate a distributed compute environment, VSAT worked fine. It worked fine because latency was not an issue.
However, at the turn of the century when the trend to centralize compute platforms became popular again, store and forward architectures quickly became dinosaurs. The final blow to VSAT in my business was the web-enabled applications that were transaction intensive and very sensitive to latency.
However as the CIO stated, we had all to gain and nothing to lose so, under duress, I decided to take another look at VSAT as an alternative or to compliment Frame Relay and broadband site-to-site VPN at my branch offices.All the while I knew I was wasting my time, because I knew the latency would kill my apps. That being said, I picked up the phone and called the folks at Hughes Network Systems. After all, Hughes with over 70% of the market is the expert in VSAT and I knew that if they didn’t have a solution, there would be no point in exploring it further.
The folks at Hughes were quick to tell me how they had made great strides in the past few years with a spoofing technology that, in a matter of speaking, changed the characteristics of TCP. This technology, TCP acceleration, eliminates a significant amount of the TCP acknowledgement traffic, permitting an almost continuous data stream, therein making latency somewhat transparent.I was still not convinced, but I was certainly willing to give it the old college try. After all, I had all to gain and nothing to lose.
Within a week, Hughes set up a VSAT system for me in my lab. I was able to leverage a backhaul circuit I already had in place, to accommodate one of my customers, between my network and the Hughes network so I was indeed ready for my engineering team to go to work and determine whether or not this TCP acceleration technique which the Hughes folks were advocating was all it was touted to be.
In the Lab
My engineering team did some initial benchmark tests between the VSAT system and a Frame Relay circuit in the model office. Initially, the VSAT system was not impressive and as we suspected our point of sale system was very sluggish and unresponsive. That could have been an end to the test; however, both my team and the Hughes team were very aggressive and were determined to turn over every leaf in an effort to succeed.
As it turns out, during our conversations we had not discussed that all of our internet traffic was via a proxy server at the corporate data center. Once this was divulged, the Hughes Engineer accomplished some fine-tuning on the Acceleration server at Hughes and all of a sudden the POS traffic “was smoking” to quote one of my engineers. As a matter of fact, benchmark testing revealed that the transaction times for most steps of a Point of Sale transaction were equivalent to that of the same transaction being performed on a Frame Relay Circuit.
The preliminary lab testing certainly intrigued me and I began to think about the more positive aspects of VSAT. Rapid Deployment was the first bullet on my list. Rapid deployment would enable me to connect branch offices within days rather than weeks and months with terrestrial wired communications that depends on the RBOC’s (Regional Bell Operating Companies) who work at a snails pace and have forgotten what customer service is all about.The second bullet would have to be disaster recovery at the branch office level.Yes, I thought there might be a place for VSAT in my network.
My next step is to do some live testing at a few of my branch offices. This will give me a better idea about how the technology performs in the real world and will help me to determine exactly where VSAT will fit in my network and just maybe I can start divorce proceedings against the RBOC’s.
Broadband cable with a redundant VSAT connection back to the data center… Hmm, now that’s an idea.