For businesses struggling to stay competitive in today’s tough economy, a reliable, top-performing network can sometimes mean the difference between growth and stagnation, profit and loss.
“The network is core to everything a small or medium-size business does today, and they may not even realize it,” says Steve Hilton, principal analyst with the enterprise research program at Analysys Mason, an international telecommunications and technology advisory firm.
“If your network goes down or slows to a crawl, your link to your suppliers and customers is gone, along with any online customer support or online selling you might do. It can have a major impact, and that impact can be negative.”
Fortunately, companies that experience outages or slowdowns — or that simply need to get more out of their existing networks  — don’t have to embark on a major or expensive network upgrade. There are tools and tricks that can optimize network performance, allow businesses to grow operations and achieve bottom-line business benefits.
Sometimes a maturing business simply outgrows its existing network, but that doesn’t mean it needs an extreme makeover. That certainly proved to be the case for Calisolar, a private manufacturer of solar grade silicon and solar cells headquartered in Sunnyvale, Calif.
The company had long connected its Sunnyvale, Berlin and Vaughan, Ontario, sites using a simple wide area network (WAN), which allowed employees to perform basic file server tasks, establish web connections and engage in some video conferencing. But Calisolar officials wanted to get more out the network, including the ability to utilize an integrated Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) telephone system and to replicate large amounts of storage data for disaster recovery purposes.
Carl Merritt, director of information technology at Calisolar, says the obvious first option was to order faster circuits from the WAN provider. But that would have required a multiyear commitment and tens of thousands of dollars in ongoing monthly expenditures. Plus, the move would have had little impact on improving latency, which is key to the user’s “feel” of the network’s speed.
A better, less expensive option was WAN optimization, a technology that automatically monitors network traffic traveling from the LAN to the WAN link, prioritizes it based on specified company requirements and compresses it where possible. After researching the market, Merritt implemented two Riverbed Steelhead 2050L appliances and a VMware-based virtual Steelhead 1050L at the company’s small Berlin office.
The March deployment cut Calisolar’s data transmission over the WAN by 92 percent, on average, and generated an increase in overall network speed by 13 times.
“You can’t beat that,” Merritt says of the results. “From the user’s point of view, it’s snappy and fast because latency is reduced. They can really feel the difference.”
The implementation, which Merritt describes as “extremely easy,” enabled the company to move forward with its VoIP phone system; its California and Canadian offices now operate on the same extension range. Merritt also leveraged the data replication functions of Calisolar’s existing iSCSI storage system to establish a redundant data center for its Sunnyvale operations in Vaughan (and vice versa). The setup is more secure, Merritt says, and keeps disaster recovery under the company’s control.
According to Merritt, the WAN optimization tools allow Calisolar to be more creative — a critical competitive advantage in the dynamic alternative energy industry. “Now our engineering team, which is spread across three countries and three time zones, can work together better,” he explains.
“Because they can share data faster, they can pick up the phone and call without any problem. It’s like they’re on the same local area network, sitting next to each other. And the better they collaborate, the more effective they’ll be, which will result in better products for the company to produce and sell.”
With malware infestations, the cure is sometimes as bad as the ailment. Malware is a key culprit in the degradation of network velocity, for instance. But because many effective antimalware programs have to scan every single file on every computer and server, companies that install them often find themselves continuing to suffer from sluggish PC and network performance, says Phil Cardone, director of IT services for Radius Management Services, which operates 11 skilled nursing facilities in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
When Cardone went searching for a program to inoculate his Southborough, Mass., company against a malware attack, he had two equally important requirements: a high “catch” rate and high speed.
He found what he was looking for in Kaspersky Business Space Security, a comprehensive product suite that speeds security scans by checking only newly created and modified files. “It’s unique in that way, and that’s where it really gains its performance and efficiency,” Cardone says, noting that Kaspersky also is one of the least expensive solutions on the market.
For Radius Management, an effective, speedy antimalware program ensures that it can reliably access and share the administrative and clinical information that’s needed to effectively care for its patients. But the solution also minimizes the risk that confidential health information could be breached — a key factor in an industry where businesses are severely fined for violations of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA).
“The bottom line is, as a healthcare organization, we cannot afford to have our network slowed or our patient data put at risk in any way because of malware,” Cardone states. “The moment a data leak happens, we become a non-HIPAA-compliant company and are subject to financial penalties. So it’s critical that we now have the best possible antimalware and security solution in place.”
Mascoma Savings Bank’s internal network ran without a hitch for years. But the emergence of a dangerous “What if?” scenario threatened those network operations and compelled its executive staff to take defensive steps.
What’s the most challenging aspect of network management?
33% Measuring bandwidth and traffic utilization
29% Quickly identifying bottlenecks
21% Automating network change and configuration across the network
10% Monitoring WAN link availability and performance
7% Troubleshooting VoIP quality of service
SOURCE: CDW poll of 357 BizTech readers
“We have a lot of public areas and conference rooms with network jacks in them,” says Chris Irish, vice president of information technology for the small community bank based in White River Junction, Vt. “We realized that someone theoretically could sit down, plug in a rogue wireless device and enter our network without us knowing it until it was too late. It’s a long shot, but if it did occur, it could be devastating to our network operations and the security of our financial information.”
The key to locking down one network was adding a supplemental one. After consulting with an IT partner, Irish decided to implement a Cisco Unified Wireless Network solution at Mascoma’s 18 branches in Vermont and New Hampshire.
The new wireless network immediately acted as a preventive security tool. Irish and his team could use Cisco’s wireless LAN controller and location appliances from the comfort of their operations center to view all access points; immediately detect the presence of rogue APs and mitigate them; and create comprehensive reports of network activity for auditors.
“We have real-time manageability now,” Irish says. “If somebody tries to put in a rogue access point, not only will I get an instant e-mail alert, but I’ll get a mapping of [which] network jack is involved and its exact location.”
The solution also has provided a bonus benefit: a secure guest network. Before, if a bank auditor came in and needed web access, the IT team would have to physically hardwire a network jack and an outside line — a task that could take one to two hours, plus travel time. Now, Irish and his team can enable access for regulators, customers and even employees by simply issuing a temporary user ID and password.
“We can have someone up and running in less than two minutes, and we don’t have to leave our desks,” he explains. “It definitely saves us money and has made the process a thousand times more efficient than it was before.”