Getting the most from your WAN

A Forrester analyst offers advice on WAN optimization and application acceleration, including best practices for evaluating network upgrades.

With Robert Whiteley, senior analyst for enterprise networking, Forrester Research, Inc.

Question: It seems like IT managers face a plethora of choices regarding WAN optimization, application acceleration and the like. What's the best way to make sense of all this activity?

Whiteley: We've found it's best to start with the applications. Identify if there are any performance issues, which can be a technical evaluation or even interviewing users and developers to understand where the bottleneck exists. Once you've identified the problem, you can work on a technical solution. We've found that, technically, there are two categories of technology -- symmetric and asymmetric -- but both are aimed at increasing throughput and decreasing latency. To better understand, ask yourself two questions: 1) Does the problem exist between branch offices and your data center with issues like slow Windows file sharing, email/Exchange, or applications like SAP? If so, most enterprises will find WAN optimization solutions (a symmetric solution -- meaning you put technology in both the branch and data center) from vendors like Riverbed, Juniper and Packeteer can address performance woes. Or 2) does the problem exist among users accessing an application via the Internet like through a company portal or e-commerce site? If so, we find firms are looking to application front ends (AFEs -- an asymmetric solution with technology in just the data center) from vendors like F5, Citrix and Cisco.

Question: Are there any general rules of thumb when evaluating network upgrades aimed at boosting application performance?

Whiteley: We find that the overall metric is pretty simple: Is poor application performance crippling end user productivity? This can be hard to measure, but you'll know if your users are complaining from the backlog in the help desk. However, from a more technical perspective, we see that WAN links that exceed 250ms of latency or application response times (for example, a query from Siebel) that exceed 10 seconds are good indications that the network can be upgraded or optimized.

Question: With so much research and development taking place in this area, wouldn't it be better for some organizations to hold off for the moment to see how the market and the technology shake out?

Whiteley: We find that most firms rely heavily on a few key applications to run the business. If this is the case -- and they suffer from critical performance issues -- then inserting WAN optimization and app acceleration can provide a very quick return on investment. However, if performance issues aren't slowing down the business, then we do recommend waiting another six months. This space is under heavy consolidation and vendors are still very active, like Citrix's recent announcement to acquire Orbital Data. Furthermore, we've found that key vendors like Cisco and Microsoft are still evolving their acceleration products. And finally, firms may find that a natural technology upgrade -- like migrating to an MPLS WAN -- will iron out many performance wrinkles.

This 3 Questions originally appeared in a weekly report from IT Business Edge.

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