Wide area networking has become a fundamental capability that most mid-sized and large organisations have come to depend on. But as next-generation wide area networks (WANs) have come on the scene they are faced with some difficult technology choices if they are to satisfy hunger for a LAN-like user experience over distance.
WAN penetration is certainly high: almost 80% of the 267 respondents to Information Age’s survey say their organisation is operating a WAN, with 35% of these networks stretching across 21 or more sites.
Today, a single approach dominates the way these services are delivered. Nearly two-thirds of the survey group are running their WANs using public IP virtual private networks (VPNs), essentially running the service over the Internet, and 37% use private IP VPNs. A committed 10% continue to use outmoded frame relay technology. But 19% have already embraced Virtual Private LAN Service (VPLS), which mimicks an Ethernet-based LAN across a WAN.
The public Internet is not always deemed capable of delivering the quality of service organisations require. And over half the sample (54%) use often-expensive leased lines. That figure is likely to shrink given that ‘cost reduction’ was by far the most frequently cited goal for organisations’ future WAN strategies, with almost three-quarters citing this as an imperative.
A significant proportion of respondents described their ‘ideal WAN’ as resembling a ‘hard-wired LAN’, with a fifth predicting that VPLS would be “the technology that the majority of companies will be using in the future” for their distributed networking requirements.
As for network topology, 40% of organisations build their networks around a ‘hub and spoke’ model: efficient for communication between a central headquarters and a regional office, but inefficient for communication between the branch offices or spokes. For instance, if a US-based company’s Middle-East office needs to share a file with its presence in the UK, the traffic must first pass through the centre of the WAN located in the company’s US headquarters, impacting the bandwidth of all three. Overcoming that, around a quarter of respondents operate ‘mesh’ or ‘partial mesh’ networks. In this arrangement, traffic can flow directly between regional offices, in the case of VPLS via a virtual switch in the centre.
Organisations employ their WANs in very similar ways. Respondents reported their WAN as being used mostly for data/file transfer (84%) and Internet traffic (78%). Other uses include access to centralised services (62%), disaster recovery (50%) and voice traffic (50%). A more adventurous third go a step further, using their WAN for video, and roughly the same amount use it to support their virtualisation strategies.
Recession-driven or otherwise, the vast majority (73%) of organisations’ WAN strategies involves cutting costs. That desire to attack spending on services and equipment stands way ahead of other goals such as integrating the WAN with a disaster recovery policy (38%), incorporating off-site storage (27%), enabling software-as-a-service (12%) or integrating it with a virtualisation policy (25%). So it comes as no surprise to find that cost effectiveness was the greatest factor involved in choosing a supplier. Over 80% of respondents identified this as a key selection factor.
If anything, the consensus appears to be that infrastructure-level networking has become commoditised: a supplier’s market reputation mattered to just a quarter of respondents and their financial stability to only half, suggesting that switching carriers is not considered a major headache.
Customers’ chief bugbear with WAN services – one cited by two-thirds of respondents – was ‘bandwidth restrictions’. ‘Over-reliance on one provider’ and ‘a lack of scalability’ (particularly with suppliers with global reach) were also common frustrations, stated by around 23% of respondents in both cases.
But cost was a recurring theme: several respondents pointed out, with some frustration, that connecting a leased line to a remote site tended to cost seven times more than doing so using ADSL broadband.
Nonetheless, switching network protocols is considered a painful process and something not to be undertaken lightly. Almost 60% of respondents said they ‘lacked a deep enough understanding of the challenges’ involved in migrating to an advanced networking technology such as VPLS. A further 36% said the cost of the migration itself was an inhibiting factor, while another 21% were put off by the ‘effort involved’. ‘Lack of relevant skills in the company’ (20%) and ‘high risk’ (14%) were also factors for many, reinforcing the preference of 41% of respondents for a fully managed WAN.