Avoiding branch office clutter

* Judicious use of hardware appliances can simplify technology deployments -- but beware the risk of overloaded branch offices

Dedicated hardware appliances can offer a relatively quick way to deploy new technologies in a data center or branch office, but lately some IT managers say they’re leery of becoming overwhelmed by appliance clutter.

Branch offices, in particular, are susceptible to appliance overload because of the generally limited availability of onsite IT staff.

According to Forrester Research, it’s conceivable that a branch office could wind up with nearly a dozen distinct appliances - security devices such as firewalls and antivirus gateways; file-sharing accelerators; WAN optimization appliances; IP communications infrastructure; and management devices such as those geared for networking monitoring or IP address management.

My colleague Denise Dubie talked to Koie Smith, an IT administrator at law firm Rainey, Kizer, Reviere & Bell, about this issue for a story she recently wrote. Smith summed things up this way: “The appliance form factor is very appealing, but there is a point at which there are just too many appliances. You can have a limited amount of rack space, and for the most part, the goal is to reduce the number of devices you have to manage.”

Forrester recommends companies plan to systematically reduce the number of boxes in a branch office by investing in gear that performs more than one function. For example, a unified threat management device could combine previously distinct functions such as firewall, intrusion detection, antivirus, antispyware and Web content filtering.

Network optimization, too, is a prime area for feature consolidation -- and many vendors are ahead of demand in this respect. Companies such as Blue Coat Systems, Juniper Networks and Riverbed have combined WAN-optimization capabilities, such as caching and compression, with wide-area file services functions, for example.

Cisco is taking things even further, Forrester notes, with its Integrated Services Router, which combines routing, switching, wireless, security, IP PBX, and soon wide-area file services and WAN optimization.

Overall, the advantages of hardware appliances are clear: They come preconfigured, they often are easier to deploy than traditional software stacks, and they come from a single vendor, which can simplify troubleshooting.

As always, the tricky part is finding the right balance. Forcing too many features into a single device could introduce greater management complexity. “There are plenty of opportunities for overzealous vendors to stretch the concept of an appliance to the breaking point,” wrote Network World columnist James Kobielus earlier this month.

Yet with the right mix of features, enterprises will find they may be able satisfy demands for new technologies relatively quickly with a good appliance, often while expending fewer staff and budget resources than traditional software stacks require.

*** Video: Harvard Business School shores up security and saves moneyThis will make the MBA candidates coming out of Harvard Business School happy: When the school shored up security through a number of means, it ended up saving $220,000 a year in bandwidth charges. John Arsneault, director of network operations at HBS, explains how on this edition of Voices from IT Roadmap. Watch now.

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