With mobile computing growing exponentially, the sheer volume of data travelling across networks now exceeds that of voice worldwide, and New Zealand is no exception. Globally, mobile employees accessing enterprise systems number well into the millions, with mobile devices outnumbering even that.
Those overwhelming numbers bring the challenges of optimising the network and application performance across those devices, because the further away workers are from their corporate data, the greater the risk of latency in the network and reduced staff productivity.
WAN optimisation was developed to provide LAN-like performance over the WAN. While initial products were designed to be installed in data centres and branch offices, the launch of mobile versions of the technology has meant that employees using notebooks can also maintain that LAN-like performance when accessing corporate systems while on the road, visiting a client or when working from home.
Billions, trillions and more
According to Frost & Sullivan’s July 2010 Asia Pacific WAN Services Market report, the market for WAN services within the Asia-Pacific region (excluding Japan) increased 6.2% in 2009 to US$12 billion. In New Zealand alone, WAN market revenues in 2009 totalled US$403 million, despite one of the worst recessions on record. Even during a time when costs were cut considerably, organisations relied more than ever on their WAN to make it through.
By year’s end, more than one billion mobile workers worldwide will be accessing enterprise systems, according to IDC. That number is expected to reach 1.2 billion by 2013, representing more than a third of the world’s workforce. With such a large workforce accessing the network remotely, there’s a need to ensure application performance has grown with it.
For the mobile worker, the tool of choice is the laptop. Experts agree, however, that smart phones, BlackBerrys and other mobile devices are rapidly proliferating. These mobile workers are accessing myriad applications, from mission-critical ERP apps to Microsoft Exchange, Lotus Notes and others. They are also plying more WAN-intensive applications that involve collaboration, remote training and virtual desktops as well as communication tools like VoIP and IP-based video.
Mobile-enabled field service and sales force automation applications, which also demand greater bandwidth, are on the rise as well and mobile workers are doing all this at home, at customer sites, in hotels, at airports, or at their nearby coffee shops.
The benefits of such an untethered workforce are many. Employee productivity ranks high, as does computing and information access when and where employees need it. But what drives these benefits – mobility – is also what can slow things down. Mobile workers often have to rely on networks less reliable and slower than those back at headquarters, affecting their user experience and ultimately their productivity. These variable locations, inconsistent links and high-latency environments can easily impair the mobile workforce. Many mobile devices have optimisation technologies built into them, but laptops do not.
Mobile WAN optimisation
WAN optimisation technology sits at the edges of a WAN to boost the performance of applications that are accessed by users distributed in headquarters and branch offices. The technology leverages a variety of techniques to optimise performance, such as eliminating redundant transmissions, compressing and prioritising data, and streamlining chatty protocols.
The technology typically resides on appliances that can optimise performance between data centres, between data centres and branches, and between branches. Mobile WAN optimisation relies on client software installed on the laptop, which communicates with a WAN optimisation appliance and accelerates performance to the laptop via such methods as URL learning, page parsing, embedded object pre-fetching, metadata acceleration modes, and other techniques.
Application performance is one of the chief complaints of mobile workers. Forrester queried more than 300 IT decision-makers and influencers in several countries around the world, and 86% of respondents indicated that they receive end user complaints regarding their mobile workforce, and the most common complaint is application performance. Laptop hardware or OS issues came in a distant second, according to Forrester.
For example, the Exego group, a major supplier to the automotive industry in New Zealand and Australia, suffered latency issues and application performance over a WAN that spanned both countries. The company, which includes Repco as one of its business units, installed WAN optimisation appliances in offices, as well as mobile versions in the notebooks of travelling executives.
The results stemming from the installation were telling: the company’s bandwidth capacity increased 2.6 times, while network performance gains of up to 3.5 times became commonplace.
There are several mobile WAN optimisation solutions available now, which means plenty of choice, but not all solutions are created equally. Ideally, the mobile WAN optimisation tool is one piece of a larger, integrated WAN optimisation portfolio, in which the tools all work together in a consistent and cohesive fashion to deliver LAN-like performance to workers near and far. But that’s not the only consideration IT managers should weigh when considering a mobile WAN optimisation solution.
Several of the offerings on the market are not core elements of a comprehensive WAN optimisation suite. Many vendors simply offer mobile WAN optimisation as a checklist item rather than a fully-formed, compelling product. The solution also needs to scale to support a few dozen or even thousands of users. It should provide organisations with an easy-to-manage, scalable, concurrent licensing model that lets IT manage a pool of licenses on a controller that can be provisioned as needed.
The mobile WAN optimisation solution should work with multiple, specific traffic types including, but not limited to Common Internet File System (CIFS), Independent Computing Architecture (ICA), Messaging Application Programming Interface (MAPI), Network File System (NFS), Radio Data System (RDS), and Transmission Control Protocol (TCP). It should also integrate well with an organisation’s existing security strategy so that even SSL encrypted traffic can be optimised.
There should be in-depth reporting available that can illustrate aggregated or individual statistics on throughput improvements, as well as bandwidth optimisation. IT managers should also look for value-add features, such as support for PC and MAC clients, and support for virtual desktops.
Another compelling feature is one that lets mobile and branch office users share optimised data by sharing data references between the data stores of a mobile client and a branch office appliance.
As mobility continues its explosive growth and organisations become increasingly distributed – with mobile workers accessing a variety of apps from basic email to virtual desktops, VoIP, ERP, and more – the need for mobile WAN optimisation will increase. These solutions are designed to create a consistent and optimal computing experience for the mobile worker.