Ralph Barber prides himself on his ability to find elegant technology solutions that will add value to Holland & Knight LLP, the large Tampa, Fla.-based law firm where he has served as chief technology officer for 11 years.
For instance, the global firm, with 18 locations and 2,600 people, was early to recognize that its attorneys would benefit from the BlackBerry push technology that delivers emails anywhere.
Three years ago, Barber began looking at ways to make the law firm's network more robust and to improve responsiveness. His IT strategy for the rapidly growing firm was focused on consolidating and centralizing its technology assets -- but not at the expense of the day-to-day performance of applications.
"As you centralize you have to take more responsibility for making those mission-critical applications bulletproof," Barber said.
Holland & Knight uses two vendors for networking, Masergy Communications Inc. in Plano, Texas, and Level 3 Communications Inc. in Broomfield, Colo. As a large organization, "we were fortunate to be able to make a big investment in T1 lines," Barber said. One way to ensure application performance was to buy more bandwidth.
But Barber was taken by a relatively new wide area network (WAN) optimization appliance from Riverbed Technology Inc. Formed in 2002, the San Francisco company boasts that its Steelhead appliances and proprietary Riverbed Optimization System software can make applications perform five to 100 times faster.
"Our objective is to make a WAN and all the applications on it feel like a LAN," said Alan Saldich, vice president of product marketing and alliances at Riverbed.
Riverbed's technology attacks latency in three ways: by streamlining data, the transportation of the data and applications. The company uses deduplication to slim the data. Many documents sent back and forth over a WAN are iterative -- the recipient at the other end makes changes, but much of the original document remains the same. Riverbed appliances catalog the contents of the original document. When the document makes a return trip, the appliance analyzes the bytes, sending on only the new material and a "pointer" to where the original or duplicative data is at the other end, thus cutting down on the amount of data sent each trip.
Considering that an estimated 65% to 95% of traffic on a WAN is duplicative, the technique can result in bandwidth savings. Riverbed's "highly optimized TCP connection" makes the trip itself more efficient. Its software tackles the third bottleneck by reducing protocol "chattiness" for applications that require a lot of steps to open. Rather than allow the application and file server to finish their back and forth, Riverbed "injects" the protocol steps on behalf of the client into the local server. Company motto, Saldich said: "The fastest trip is the trip you never make."
Two to tango
Too good to be true? At Holland & Knight there were concerns, Barber said. He needed to be assured that the optimization would not distort data or present other errors or interfere with video, which Holland & Knight sends over its WAN.
Riverbed appliances have to be deployed at both ends of the WAN link to work. Barber started with two devices, between the firm's Miami office and its Tampa data center. Ease of use was good. Barber also got a kick out of Riverbed's "high level" of technology innovation. The kicker: The performance improvement was "off the charts."
"I do think Riverbed probably has the best solution on the market, and that's mainly from user feedback. They seem to have built a better product," said analyst Zeus Kerravala, who manages infrastructure research and consulting at Boston-based Yankee Group Research Inc.
Part of that is due to the rapid consolidation in the crowded WAN optimization space, Kerravala said. Many Riverbed competitors, from Swan Labs to Tacit Networks and Orbital Data, have been snapped up by large vendors. Innovation often slows when companies are acquired. "While all this acquisition was going on, Riverbed really managed to forge head." In addition, about 40% of customers purchase from the first vendor they see, because the benefits are so dramatic.
That was the case with Holland & Knight, which bought on first sight, Barber said.
"We're estimating anywhere between 20% and 40% bandwidth performance improvement for us, and because of that it has reduced our backup windows, so improved our DR capability and ROI, with anticipated future reduction of bandwidth," Barber said. With nine offices in hurricane-prone Florida, business continuity is top priority.
Over the past 18 months, Barber has moved out 20 Exchange servers from branch offices to the Tampa data center: 20 billion documents in its data center are accessed every day from offices all over the country over the WAN. "The reason we can do that efficiently is because we have the Riverbed devices that help with performance," Barber said.
The appliances were put to the test when an email server in the firm's Boston office went down. Partly because the office was so far from Tampa and its data loads so voluminous, Barber has left Boston's servers alone. After the hardware failure, the fix of restoring those tapes in the Tampa data center and getting Boston up and running with Riverbed appliances deployed at either end became a permanent solution, as there was no noticeable deterioration in performance.
End result: "We don't have to put in as many T1s as we might have or deploy a higher-end solution that might be more expensive," Barber said.
WAN optimization has become such a strategic tool, Kerravala said, because roughly 80% of the workforce works outside the headquarters, and application performance is strongly linked to productivity.
"I've always said that an inconsistent user experience probably is the biggest inhibitor of productivity out there. It's almost better to have an application that performs poorly all the time, because employees build their workflow around the expectation," Kerravala said, citing a company with employees who planned their coffee breaks around an old mainframe app that takes 10 minutes to get up and running.
Let us know what you think about the story; email: Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer