by February 4, 2007 0 comments

WANs are a critical part of most IT infrastructure today, and can’t be
ignored. It’s not just about maintaining your Internet connectivity anymore.
That can easily be managed through bandwidth management and traffic shaping
solutions. Today, the technologies and applications that can work over WANs have
grown far beyond that. Disaster recovery and BCP, VoIP, video conferencing, web
conferencing, online collaboration, VPNs, branch office connectivity, e-commerce
applications are just a few of the applications that require WAN links. Then of
course, there are the business applications like ERP, CRM, and even legacy or
home grown applications that need to work over WAN links. Every organization
today has already deployed at least some of these applications already, and the
trend is to add more load to the WAN links. In fact, when we interacted with key
IT decision makers across the country, we found that nearly 60% of them were
already running their business applications across their WAN links, followed by
VPN connectivity, messaging and collaboration tools, remote file sharing, and
Voice over IP. They were all using so many applications already that there weren’t
as many deployments planned in the future. 

The only sizable deployment seemed to be Voice over IP, with nearly 45% of
the respondents saying they’re planning to shift to. This brings us to an
interesting question. Are your WAN links geared to handle this load and the
possible future load? Even if you don’t add more applications, you’re likely
to add more users and connect locations to it. This would increase both cost and
complexity of the whole setup. How well prepared are you for this? If you haven’t
really given it a serious thought, then maybe it’s time you did. For instance,
when an ordinary connection to the Internet goes down, you start getting frantic
calls. What would happen if a WAN link connecting two key locations of your
organization goes down? Not only would that lead to panic, but possible business
loss as well. This calls for some thinking and creating a proper strategy to
manage your WAN links. We interacted with key CIOs and IT managers from across
the country to determine how were they managing their respective WAN
infrastructures, what problems were they facing, and more importantly, how were
they resolving the same.

Identify the key issues
The first thing to do is of course to identify the key issues you’re facing
with your WAN links, and try to formulate a plan to eliminate those. The biggest
issue that seems to give CIOs nightmares is (no points for guessing) the uptime
and very availability of their WAN links. There were lots of cases reported of
WAN links getting cut, break downs happening, link failures, etc, leading to
down time. WAN mangers seem to be having issues with the very reliability of
their WAN links and whether connectivity will be there. In fact, all other
issues cropped up in miniscule numbers compared to uptime and availability.
These were security, speed, link utilization, and other issues like cost, DR,
etc. Organizations with a large number of WAN links experience a different
problem of ensuring all their WAN routers are compatible. They must therefore
follow standards or shift to routers from the same vendor. All this is indeed a
concerning revelation. In an age where WANs are becoming the basic
communications backbone of the company, CIOs are still facing problems in the
very availability of their links.

Applications currently
running across the WAN infrastructure
WAN applications planning
to deploy in the near future

When it comes to WAN link performance, issues like latency, access speed,
fluctuations in the link, available bandwidth utilization, and high response
time become critical, and must be addressed. So how do you resolve these issues?
Where do you start?

First thing’s first-get yourself backup links for all the critical WAN
links in your organization. Ideally, it should be from a different service
provider to ensure maximum availability. A lot of organizations resort to ISDN
links for backup. Possibly that’s why the number of current ISDN deployments
that we got from our survey were so high. More over, you might also like to keep
some spare WAN equipment as well to ensure you’re prepared for any
eventualities due to equipment failure. For the remaining issues like security,
bandwidth utilization, etc, you would need a mix of usage policies, and
products. Then of course, ensure that you fix stringent SLAs with your service
providers. Ensure that you get timely reports on WAN links utilization, and
availability of various services being provided.

What’s the biggest challenge you face with users of your WAN infrastructure?

Define who’ll manage your links
Another critical decision that will affect your WAN link management is the
manpower you’re using for managing it. You need to determine who’s going to
manage it. Should you have in house staff for it, have the ISP do it, or
outsource it to a third party altogether? This forms a critical part of a WAN
strategy. If you’re adding more locations into your WAN infrastructure, then
do you really want to deploy a person at each location for managing the links?
Even if the links are mission critical, it’s not as if they’ll continue
going down very frequently. What growth in career can you give to employees who’re
sitting in all the remote locations managing WAN links? Not much. So it’s
better that you either outsource it to your ISP or to a third party as a part of
a bigger AMC. A remote branch of a bank for instance would require a WAN link to
connect to the core branch. It may not be feasible to deploy somebody full time
at the branch just for the WAN links, or for even managing the IT setup. This
call has to be taken based on the size of the branch. So create a list of all
branches according to size and then check for the feasibility of outsourcing vs.
in-house management. In our survey, 41% of the respondents had in house staff
for managing their WAN links, but there were another 32% who were getting it
managed by their ISP. Another 18% had outsourced it to a third party. The key
point to note here is that you need to ensure that you’ve defined the SLAs and
are ensuring that they’re followed.

The right mix of access technologies
If your organization is geographically dispersed, then chances are you would be
using different types of connectivity technologies. Even in our interactions
with key IT decision makers, we found a multitude of technologies being used.
ISDN topped the charts with 50% of respondents already using it. DSL, VSATs, and
radio links are the next most popular, followed by minor portions of other
technologies. The key here is to be able to juggle between technologies
properly. You need to be able to use the right technology in the right place.
For this, an understanding of key WAN technologies, their advantages and
limitations is a must.

WAN infrastructure management

Establish control
Most of the respondents to our survey said that the key issue they face with
their users is enforcing access policies. This is easier said than done, as it
could end up becoming a sensitive issue. What if for instance, you find somebody
very senior in the management misusing bandwidth? Even if access policies are in
place, it would be difficult for anybody from the IT department to put an end to
it. What’s required therefore is to bring the HR department into the picture.
Route the policies through them.

As WAN has far lesser bandwidth than a regular LAN, it becomes a precious
resource. Any kind of misuse can choke the bandwidth. On top of that, if you
have users misusing the links, life can really become difficult. Remember the
days when P2P clients and download accelerators were a nightmare? Somebody on
the network would be running one of these and hogging up all Internet bandwidth.
Today, there are enough filtering solutions to filter out such troublemakers.
What about filters for your other WAN applications? For this, you need to have
clearly laid out usage guidelines. Plus, of course, you need to implement the
right QoS (Quality of Service) policies to ensure effective use of the
bandwidth. We received a number of solutions from the respondents to our survey,
which they’ve already implemented. One is to give authenticated access, and
second is to give it to limited individuals. You could also put a time limit on
the login. QoS and traffic prioritization is of course an option.

How statisfied are you with the level of service given by your WAN service provider/ISP?

Manage your service provider
A majority of our respondents said that they were just satisfied by the level of
service given by their WAN service provider. No wonder then that uptime and
availability were their key issues. Moreover, the two toughest tasks faced by a
majority of our respondents were that they found it a challenge to define the
SLAs and they never got the bandwidth promised by their service provider. The
third majority said too much downtime was their key concern. How do you
therefore handle the service provider? Some of the respondents went as far as to
put financial penalty clauses in their SLAs. Yet others held regular meetings
with their service providers to discuss concerns and issues, and asked for
regular reports. The key thing is that if you keep these reports handy, then
they become very useful at the time of renewing your annual contract with them.
If you’re not happy, then you can use the same to switch and negotiate with
another service provider.

What’s the key issue you face with your WAN service provider/ISP?

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