by Meridith Levinson

Upgrade, Schmupgrade. New Tools Let You Get the Most Out of Your Existing Network

Mar 01, 20028 mins

At Fenwick & West, a high-powered law firm in Silicon Valley, 10,000 e-mails cross the wires each day. E-mail is the primary way the firm’s fleet of lawyers, located in Palo Alto, Calif., San Francisco and Washington, D.C., communicate with their clients. Unfortunately for the IT department, many of those 10,000 e-mails include network-clogging documents, images and sound files?some as large as 500MB.

CTO Matt Kesner says that the transfer of so many large files over the network causes other applications to time out, and his users can’t stand getting disconnected when they need documents to prepare last-minute presentations for clients and prospects. “We have people working in the middle of the night and they expect fast connections, reliable connections 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” he says.

For three years, Kesner addressed his bandwidth problems by upgrading his WAN connections from a single T1 line to multiple T1 lines and his LAN connection to Gigabit Ethernet. But each time he increased bandwidth, users sucked it up.

“No matter how much bandwidth you provide to users, they’re going to want more,” says Donald Czubek, president of Gen2 Ventures, a quality of service management analyst firm based in San Jose, Calif.

Bottlenecks that slow down the entire network arise where information running over the speedy corporate LAN meets the slower corporate WANs. And while LAN connectivity is inexpensive, WAN connectivity isn’t. In fact, for some IT executives, WAN connectivity accounts for as much as 20 percent of their budget. With their wallets shrinking, CIOs are looking for places to cut and casting glances toward networking costs. The problem is, they have to decrease their costs without further degrading service. Fortunately, there is a host of low-cost, low-maintenance hardware- and software-based solutions to the bandwidth conundrum?from vendors such as Cacheflow, Digital Fountain, Expand Networks, Packeteer, Peribit Networks and Sitara Networks?that many CIOs are deploying, with amazing results.

Fast Fixes

When organizations don’t have enough bandwidth, the performance of mission-critical applications deteriorates. For example, Redwood City, Calif.-based BroadVision customers had to wait up to two minutes to report any problems they had with the vendor’s enterprise self-service software, while customer service representatives on the other end of the phone line tried to access the event-management system to open a trouble ticket, according to CIO Shawn Farshchi.

Meanwhile, employees in BroadVision’s finance department would get kicked off the ERP system because the financial applications took so long to respond over the WAN. So last September, Farshchi installed hardware from Peribit, a Santa Clara, Calif.-based startup, on each end of his WAN. The VCR-sized SR-50 server reduces the number of bytes transmitted across a link by finding patterns in packets of data and encoding them in more efficient sequences, says Amit Singh, Peribit’s cofounder and chief scientist.

Since Farshchi began using the SR-50, he says response time has improved between three- and fivefold. In addition to adding the SR-50, Farshchi redesigned his application architecture to prevent a lot of information from moving back and forth to remote locations. “With the combination of the efficiencies we put in the applications and the new [Peribit] device, we are reducing our requirements for internal network bandwidth by 50 percent,” says Farshchi.

Not having enough bandwidth also means CIOs can’t deploy new applications. In December 2000, Fairmont Supply, a distributor of industrial maintenance, repair and operating supplies in Canonsburg, Pa., began deploying a GUI-based ERP system. Five months into the project, John Floyd, Fairmont Supply’s general manager, realized he was going to miss a critical implementation deadline because the company didn’t have enough bandwidth to deploy the application over the existing frame-relay network. Fairmont’s consultant, Network Source One (NSO) of Detroit, recommended it use caching software from Expand Networks, a bandwidth optimization company based in Roseland, N.J.

Like Peribit’s SR-50, Expand’s Accelerator product line consists of a hardware- and software-based solution that uses patented algorithms to recognize recurring patterns of data flowing over the network and replaces those patterns with a smaller packet of data. Expand can also store data that gets repeatedly sent over the WAN locally so that it doesn’t have to continuously move back and forth over the network.

Using Expand’s technology, Fairmont has seen a 200 percent to 300 percent increase in throughput for its WAN protocols, according to Will Babinchack, NSO’s director of technical services. And locations that suffered with delays of as long as four seconds now enjoy less than two-second response times. Floyd says Fairmont saw a return on its investment within six to 11 months, depending on the installation location.

It’s important to note that while both of these solutions help to improve bandwidth over the WAN, they are actually deployed on the LAN. “These appliances are used at the boundary between a local area network and a wide area network,” says Czubek. They manage bandwidth at the point where the high-speed Gigabit Ethernet LAN meets the WAN. “With the high-speed Ethernet LAN, very often you can throw bandwidth at the problem because it’s so inexpensive. On a WAN, throwing bandwidth at the problem is an issue because you’re paying a monthly fee and because it’s so expensive,” he says.

Quality Approach

In the past, CIOs took draconian measures to control network traffic. They prohibited employees from surfing the Net between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. They blocked certain websites. They prioritized network applications so that high-priority apps would run quickly and steadily while low-priority ones would run slower. None of those measures completely solved the problem.

Then vendors such as Cisco and Nortel added software to their routers and switches designed to monitor quality of service and prioritize traffic. For some companies?including Fenwick & West?these router and switch-based solutions worked fine. But for others, such as Charter Communications, a St. Louis-based provider of broadband services in St. Louis, the value-added features on switches and routers required more memory, more processing power within the router or switch, and even an entire hardware upgrade.

Today’s trafficking and monitoring tools perform quality of service analysis on packets of data at the application layer. This allows network services directors, such as Charter Communications’ Floyd Jochimsen, to guarantee bandwidth for certain applications and protocols. Jochimsen uses PacketShaper, a bandwidth management appliance from Packeteer. PacketShaper increases the amount of usable bandwidth on any given circuit by identifying everything that’s running on the network and then analyzing how much bandwidth each user or application is absorbing. The product then dynamically adjusts the performance of applications based on controls the CIO establishes for when the network gets congested. When an employee tries to download music from Napster, for example, he might find it takes ages?if it runs at all?while a video conferencing application gets the bandwidth it needs to run smoothly.

Using PacketShaper, Jochimsen says he decreased the cost of his network by 50 percent.

PacketShaper includes tools for network monitoring and analysis. Before deploying a caching solution or a bandwidth management appliance, CIOs must first audit their network to find out what’s running on it. Experts agree that while most companies know what authorized applications are running on their network, they have no idea what unauthorized programs are also sucking up bandwidth and slowing down performance. “Very often, people find a lot of unimportant traffic like Napster on their very expensive, congested links. At colleges and universities, Napster and its ilk consume 80 percent to 90 percent of available bandwidth. The numbers are less than that at most corporations, but everybody has the problem whether they know it or not,” says Czubek.

And since it’s hard for IT to prohibit savvy users from downloading unauthorized applications, CIOs have to take a proactive approach to bandwidth management using these tools. At Fenwick & West, Kesner is prioritizing traffic on his company’s network using quality of service tools on his switches. He’s also improved throughput by installing multiple network interface cards on his servers, and he’s using Peribit devices on WAN links to increase the available bandwidth between the firm’s offices. Kesner says the Peribit boxes he deployed gave him control over outside bandwidth needs that he never had before. “I’m saving thousands of dollars a month because I didn’t have to increase our bandwidth on two of our WAN links because of Peribit,” says Kesner. n