No Easy Fix for Branch Office Blues

Branch offices spell IT trouble, says Arun Taneja, and need an 'arsenal' to fix things

LONG BEACH, Calif. -- Storage World Conference -- Despite the boom in remote networking, branch offices remain the bane of most IT managers' lives with no single-product remedy in sight.

During a keynote speech on Tuesday, Arun Taneja, founder of the Taneja Group consultancy, said few users have successfully tackled the challenges posed by their remote sites and still wrestle with network bandwidth and security issues.

Today, more than 60 percent of data is generated outside of the head office, according to the analyst, and three-quarters of workers are based away from HQ. "There's two million remote workers in the U.S. alone," he asserted, adding that globalization is increasing the branch office pressure on many businesses. (See IBM Triples India Investment, Cisco Invests $1B in India , IBM Servers Lead in China , AT&T to Host Shanghai, and Linuxers Look East.)

"If you have got a solid management situation with all of your branch offices, then you are alone," he said. "Typically, people have got their fingers crossed, hoping that a disaster doesn't happen."

Data protection, said Taneja, is shoddy or, at best, inconsistent. "Some people have local data protection, some people are replicating their data."

Taneja warned listeners that branch office data is subject to the same stringent compliance requirements as information on data center servers. "The SEC doesn't care if the data was created in a branch location, or created in headquarters."

This struck a chord with at least one member of the audience. Compliance is the major driver behind branch office consolidation, agreed Hadley Pullen, analyst at Forsythe Solutions Group. "If litigation shows up, and that information can't be produced, it has implications," he told Byte and Switch.

But this argument isn't a sufficient incentive to overhaul remote communications for one IT exec from a California city authority, who asked not to be named. He told Byte and Switch that he has not felt the need to consolidate his branch offices, and won't unless performance takes a hit. "Right now, the speed [of data transfer] is OK for the remote users," he explained. If it slows down, he said he'd look to wide area file services (WAFS) technologies.

Over the last couple of years, a slew of vendors have launched products designed to tackle various elements of the branch office problem -- from application performance to WAN optimization and WAFS. Many are combining technologies believing users can consolidate resources -- such as file servers -- and share their data more effectively. (See Vendors Plan a Week to Watch, Brocade, Packeteer Team Up, WAN Market Tops $236M, and Packeteer Picks Tacit.)

These offerings, which Taneja categorizes as wide-area data-services appliances, could prove useful, although the analyst warned users that there is still no silver bullet for the branch office.

"No one technology is going to solve your problems," he said. "You're going to have to use an arsenal of products that exist on the market today."

To illustrate his point, Taneja pointed to Cisco, which bought WAFS vendor Actona for $82 million in June 2004, as well as gear from the acquisition of WAN optimization supplier FineGround for $70 million in May 2005. (See Cisco Acts on Actona and Cisco Chomps FineGround.) Despite this move to boost its presence, Cisco has not made as much progress in WAN optimization as some other vendors, according to Taneja. In contrast, Riverbed -- currently planning an IPO -- offers a "fairly broad offering in a single appliance," he said. (See Riverbed Makes It Official.)

While frequently billed as a WAFS appliance, in Taneja's view, Riverbed's Steelhead product works much like a WAN optimizer. It tweaks TCP to reduce protocol "chattiness" caused by repetitious packet exchanges. At the same time, it offers application-specific algorithms to reduce the overhead caused by Windows, HTTP, and MAPI traffic. (See Sources: Riverbed Reaches for IPO.)

But Taneja also urged users not to get too bogged down in technology as they re-evaluate their branch office infrastructures. "It's important to start with the business issue and not the technology."

At least one audience member greeted the presentation stoically. Herb Goldstein, a business consultant at HDG Enterprises, sees the plethora of branch office products on the market as yet another hassle for users. "The pendulum is always changing in technology. There's constantly more software," he said. "Somebody comes out with a new widget and everyone has to decide whether they make the change in what they are doing."

— James Rogers, Senior Editor, Byte and Switch

Organizations mentioned in this article:

  • AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T)
  • Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO)
  • Forsythe Solutions Group Inc.
  • IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM)
  • Riverbed Technology Inc. (Nasdaq: RVBD)
  • Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC)
  • Taneja Group