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WAAS gives an indispensable CAD/content management system new life

Jeremy Gill, CIO of civil engineering firm Michael Baker Corp., was faced with an increasingly common conundrum: how to centralize and not suffer the latency consequences. His solution: WAN acceleration technology from Cisco.

Jeremy Gill, CIO of civil engineering firm Michael Baker Corp., found himself at a crossroads.

The firm was well into a multiyear effort to centralize IT operations for the usual good reasons: to cut costs, lower overhead and better utilize the applications its 4,500 employees use to do their work. But ProjectWise, the critical computer-aided design software used by the engineers across the firm's 50 U.S. offices to design, build and operate their projects, was suffering.

"We started running into latency issues to the point where we needed to make a decision, whether we should upgrade bandwidth to some of our sites or have to decentralize," said Gill, who joined the firm in 2000 out of college and climbed the IT operational ranks. He was promoted to CIO in April.

Based in the Pittsburgh suburb of Moon Township, the firm had consolidated its data centers to a colocation facility outside Washington, D.C. The data facility serves a dual purpose, also acting as a people hub, where engineers and customers meet to work on projects. The IT strategy behind the consolidation was to make the firm's files accessible across its widely distributed network. But the best-laid plans of CIOs often go awry.

"We have several remote offices that are connected via a T1 where the application performance was unacceptable, and we ended up having to spread out data in disparate locations, which defeated the purpose of centralization," Gill said.

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There were other chinks in the IT infrastructure. Baker used storage area network (SAN) technology for general storage, as well as for failover and load balancing. One of the biggest problems discovered with the SAN was the Fiber Channel switches Baker was using were not expandable and were running out of fiber ports.

The Michael Baker dilemma is hardly unique. Companies need real-time access to applications for employees and customers all over the place. Zeus Kerravala, who manages infrastructure research and consulting at Boston-based Yankee Group Research Inc., said wide area network (WAN) optimization has become such a strategic tool because roughly 80% of the workforce works outside the headquarters, and application performance is strongly linked to productivity.

He said the "inconsistent user experience" is probably the biggest inhibitor of productivity out there. He added that he believes workers are almost better off with an application that performs poorly all the time, rather than erratically. At least then they can build their workflow around the application, he said, recounting an anecdote about employees who planned their coffee breaks around an old mainframe app that took 10 minutes to open.

WAN acceleration, with the Cisco kit to the rescue

Back at Michael Baker, the hunt was on for a WAN and storage solution, with the proviso that the solution allowed Gill and his team to monitor the entire solution from a centralized location. Gill looked at Cisco Systems Inc. and the top competitor in the field, which he declined to name. Baker already ran Cisco's Voice over Internet Protocol tool and liked the results it got with Cisco switches at its SAN locations, Gill said. The company was also "comfortable" with Cisco support.

"The two things that drove me were total cost of ownership and the Cisco roadmap," Gill said. "Being able to use the WAN accelerators using the blade technology that plugged into the ISRs cut down on the cost of implementation as well as support, because the ISR support covered the blade we plugged into."

But it was the roadmap -- what Cisco calls Datacenter 3.0, that sealed the deal, Gill said. He pointed to the money Cisco was plowing into its WAN acceleration business and its plans for the next 12 to 18 months.

"We ended up having to spread out data in disparate locations, which defeated the purpose of centralization." 
Jeremy Gill
CIOMichael Baker Corp.

Bottom line, by the numbers: a six-figure investment in Cisco Wide Area Application Services for use on a Cisco NME-WAE-502 network module embedded in the Cisco Integrated Services Router (ISR) 2811, two Cisco WAE-7326 appliances for the primary data center and big offices, and Cisco WAE-512 and 612 appliances for larger offices. On the storage side, Baker chose MDS 9216 Multilayer Fabric Switches.

Baker estimates it is saving approximately $4,000 to $7,000 a month in bandwidth costs, and an estimated $1 million over 18 months related to less downtime and a boost in billable hours of remote workers.

"If there was one thing my folks complained about and still have heartburn about, it is the base reporting capability that comes out of the WAN acceleration solution today," Gill said. "We like to quantify the savings, so my folks are pulling out the data manually and we have to manipulate it manually."

But the new version from Cisco will get rid of that heartburn, Gill said, and the goal is to cut out the 10 hours to 20 hours a month in administration it now takes for the reporting. The latest version also focuses on video acceleration, which will be a boon for the Baker engineers.

"Instead of having to send 20 streams down from the data center, I only have to send one, and then the acceleration devices will send 20 streams into the local office," Gill said. 'That is huge for us, because we commonly have had to congregate in common areas when we've had to do a webcast, just so we don't overload the system."


Let us know what you think about the story; email: Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer

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