Providing connectivity to branch offices may not be as easy \u2014 or as affordable \u2014 as it sounds. Determining the right capacity, finding the appropriate carrier or carriers, managing installation and troubleshooting, and figuring out when it is time to upgrade is time consuming and often frustrating.Many organizations are turning to bandwidth optimization tools to extend the time between upgrades \u2014 and to provide insight into bandwidth utilization. The result is that they squeeze more capacity out of existing bandwidth and can better manage their circuits by understanding which applications are using how much bandwidth.Bandwidth optimization providers fall into a few categories. Some, such as Expand Networks and Juniper (which acquired Peribit Networks last year), provide \u201cbandwidth acceleration,\u201d by using a combination of compression, caching, and Layer 4 QoS techniques to tackle bandwidth problems from a few angles. The products typically increase available bandwidth by an average of about 300%, and they also provide good performance data on the circuits to help troubleshoot and perform capacity planning.A similar set of tools come from vendors that focus primarily on QoS, and some offer granular application control by assessing content at Layer 7. For example, they\u2019ll look at specific URLs, while Layer 4 tools will look at port numbers to determine Web traffic. The tools provide solid management and monitoring capabilities that deliver insight to network performance, and enforce policies by application and time of day. Vendors in this space include Allot and Packeteer.Most routers provide QoS capabilities, but they are more limited than the above-mentioned tools in that they simply prioritize applications based on IP addresses or TCP\/UDP port numbers. The vendors in this space, including Cisco, Nortel, Extreme and 3 Com, are adding functionality to the products that provide some more sophistication in the areas of latency control, for example.Nemertes recommends companies take advantage of the gear, not only because it can prevent circuit upgrades, but also because it can provide greater insight to network and application performance. True, bandwidth isn\u2019t terribly expensive, but the time and oversight required to order, follow-up and implement new circuits can add up. Furthermore, although incremental costs of bandwidth upgrades may not be noteworthy for one location, they add up when you\u2019re talking about dozens or hundreds of branch offices.We recommend the following approach when using bandwidth optimization tools:* Order equipment for a free trial from two vendors for side-by-side comparisons on your most heavily used circuit (one that's ready for an upgrade would be good), paying particular attention to:- The amount of time it takes to get the equipment delivered.- The amount of time it takes to install the equipment.- The complexity of the installation.- How quickly you see bandwidth availability increase.- What network or application visibility you gain.- How easy it is to set policies to leverage that information.- Vendor responsiveness and customer service.* Create a weighted spreadsheet and rate the vendors on each of these areas.* Calculate a quick ROI.* Negotiate with the vendors for the best prices. (If they know you\u2019ve tried a competitor, they\u2019re more willing to concede a bit on price).In the end, you\u2019ll find that you can keep your monthly recurring costs down, often for years, by implementing bandwidth optimization.