The next big thing in networks: The branch box

It may or may not replace your remote servers, but the branch office appliance is sure to become an indispensable tool for delivering applications to far flung offices in the enterprise.

IT experts expect that one of the big trends of 2006 will be the growing importance of the branch office and, in particular, the rise of technologies that can deliver applications like CRM or ERP to remote sites on the WAN in a timely fashion.

The branch office and associated technologies that target WAN performance to remote sites are getting fresh attention for a few reasons.

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On the one hand, IT administrators have been forced to drastically reduce branch office IT staff during the past four or five years so many have had to centralize most if not all of their main servers. On the other hand, these managers are also coping with a counter-trend that calls for delivering applications like CRM and ERP to end users in branch office locations, and to address the need to have decent response times and reliable local storage, thanks to regulations like Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX).

If an IT manager were to receive the kind of service in a branch to support these applications, it would practically call for the creation of a local mini-data center to avoid the latency that occurs, for example, when an end user in Singapore tries to open a large spreadsheet stored on a server in Austin, Texas.

Good support system alternatives

To help IT managers run branches in a situation where there are few servers and no IT support, a class of special network appliances has emerged that boosts performance and reduces latency created by common WAN protocols – such as Common Internet File System (CIFS), or mail access through the Message Application Programming Interface (MAPI).

These protocols were designed for client/server applications but not long distance access of business process applications, said Joe Skorupa, a research director at Gartner Inc., Stamford, Conn.

Some of the vendors are solving the problem with sophisticated caching or protocol specific optimization, Skorupa said. "Everyone has a different state in terms of delivering on a branch office box, but it's all really about how do you build a serverless branch office," he said.

 Everyone has a different state in terms of delivering on a branch office box, but it's all really about how do you build a serverless branch office.
Joe Skorupa
Research DirectorGartner, Inc.

Some of the players are: Riverbed Technology Inc., San Francisco; Juniper Networks Inc., Sunnyvale, Calif., which bought Peribit Networks Inc.; Expand Networks Inc., Roseland, N.J.; and Tacit Networks Inc., South Plainfield, N.J., which offers a specific product for Windows and is a Microsoft partner.

Some of the products use WAN optimization techniques where more information is basically pushed into the pipe, wide area file services (WAFS) techniques where they perform TCP spoofing techniques, or encapsulate CIFS in their own protocol to speed up file transfers.

Those companies are working with others to pull together complete branch office architecture strategies. Some products focus on speeding up the network or compressing the file, or both. Indeed, Charles Foley, president of Tacit, said his focus for 2006 will be to address the WAN optimization "problem", adding that there are plans to extend from the file services layer to the generic TCP layer.

"We have customers who say, we are starting from the right point, but [ask if we] can apply some of those technologies to standard TCP/IP data stream," he said.

Whatever the technique, the goal is to speed up delivery to the remote site. Cisco Systems Inc., through its acquisition of Actona Technologies Inc., last year, and IBM are also expected to have strong roles in influencing how the branch office architecture will look.

The goal for IT is to be able to remove all of the Windows servers aimed at general office procedures from the branch office and replace them with one of these boxes. Today, that is still tough to do, Skorupa said.

SOX requirements are driving the data center consolidation at Silicon Laboratories Inc., in Austin, Texas. The company is now hoping to improve response times from servers in Austin to its offices in Singapore. "File sharing protocols are so chatty and packet heavy, and file sharing across a WAN is practically impossible," said Ed Golden, a network administrator at Silicon Laboratories.

Golden said the addition of a wide area file service device, made by Tacit Networks, had radically cut its latency and the speed at which files are saved.

For its part, Microsoft has added the new Remote Differential Compression algorithm that began shipping in Windows Server 2003 R2, which replicates only file changes to reduce overall replication times. Additional caching and replication techniques are also expected to come in Vista and Longhorn, but those could take years to get a foothold in the market.

Of course, the significant concern for Microsoft in all of this is that if the branch office servers go away, the software goes away.

"There is still a per-CPU license, and whoever controls the branch office architecture controls the overall architecture," Skorupa said. "Cisco has made it clear they will enter the market and IBM will roll something out. Some things will be built into Windows. Microsoft is pushing the appliance vendors to use Longhorn instead of Linux or Unix."

Longhorn begins to look like a viable option for an embedded OS but the challenge for Microsoft is the price it wants for Longhorn. "When you have a device that sells for $2,500, and the embedded OS sells for zero dollars and now it's a few hundred dollars, that makes a difference," said Skorupa.

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