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Senior Editor

Battle for bandwidth

Jun 14, 20044 mins
Data CenterWAN

Packeteer’s WAN application acceleration appliances make better use of bandwidth at ABM.

American Building Maintenance in 1999 found itself between a rock and a hard place.

The company wanted to standardize multiple application platforms on Citrix and deliver the applications from a centralized data center via a WAN to more than 200 locations. While consolidating resources to one data center would save staff time and budget dollars, ABM could not let application performance suffer.

“It’s imperative that remote-office users get access to applications as though they were here,” says Sean Finley, assistant vice president and deputy director at ABM, a large facilities contractor in San Francisco.

ABM runs about 40 applications, including Lotus Notes, Microsoft Office and payroll, on 50 Windows terminal servers using Citrix. Citrix lets IT managers run applications on a remote server rather than at the desktop. ABM’s remote offices connect to the data center via frame relay, DSL and broadband, depending on the location.

ABM also needed to identify the Citrix traffic on the WAN, and go a step further, by identifying which Citrix application (payroll or Word, for example) ranked higher than others. ABM gives priority to Citrix applications over all others, and then they get more detailed by assigning another priority on which a Citrix application, such as payroll, gets bandwidth before others.

The company had a choice: buy bandwidth as applications demand or optimize use of the bandwidth it had in place. “We wanted to reduce costs by standardizing, not incur more,” Finley says.

Enter Packeteer. ABM deployed about 85 PacketShaper appliances to remote sites and set up a master box in its data center. The company says using Packeteer’s traffic-shaping and compression technology in 2003 saved ABM more than $575,000 in bandwidth costs. (The company reduced the amount of bandwidth it needed to support its applications and services over the WAN.) With the technology, ABM also saw a 30% reduction in the amount of bandwidth needed to send the same amount of data, so performance improved.

Pricing for Packeteer products ranges from $2,250 to $48,000, depending on link size and features included. A service contract is 15% of the cost of the product per year.

Packeteer, like competitors Expand Networks, FineGround Networks and Peribit Networks, offers software applications packaged on an appliance to monitor and optimize WAN traffic. PacketShaper targets bottlenecks in WAN application performance, as application traffic enters the enterprise in the last mile between the campus and the WAN cloud.

The hardware sits between LANs and WAN routers and can reserve bandwidth for key applications and queue traffic by application so the top-priority applications get bandwidth over less critical traffic. Packeteer’s compression technology uses pattern recognition to compress data, which can optimize the performance of important applications across WAN links where bandwidth is limited.

“We are now able to discover traffic as it’s coming through. We can see what is going in and out of the site, all the various protocols,” says Tony Kloeppel, data communications manager at ABM. “We set policies that give the Citrix application priority over everything.”

Industry watchers credit appliances from Packeteer and others for performing specialized tasks on optimized boxes, yet appliances represent a small part of the overall management product market – 10%, according to consulting firm Enterprise Management Associates (EMA). This number includes management appliances, such as packet shapers, and security and configuration management boxes.

Appliances can offer a low entry price, quick installation and high-availability, but depending on the product, might not scale as well as distributed software or integrate into existing systems as easily. Also with multiple distributed appliances, data correlation – a must-have for any enterprise application performance management strategy – becomes more difficult.

For its part, Packeteer also offers software applications such as PolicyCenter and ReportCenter that let IT managers administer multiple appliances, distribute configuration updates in a one-to-many manner, set policies and generate reports based on traffic statistics, such as top talkers, application usage and bandwidth hogs. ABM plans to roll out both software applications in the coming months.

Competitor Expand recently added stand-alone software to its product roster, and FineGround started offering its software also packaged as an appliance.

In ABM’s case, Kloeppel says the PacketShaper appliances work independently from the company’s other management products such as HP OpenView and mostly address WAN traffic. Although PacketShaper has spotted PCs on the LAN getting a surplus of packets sent their way, which indicates a potential security attack.

“We don’t use it to monitor application performance on the LAN, but it has become a good tool to solve problems there,” Kloeppel says.