Consolidating Branch Office Technology

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Nik Rouda is Director of Solutions at Riverbed Technology, the IT performance company.

Nik RoudaNIK ROUDA
Riverbed Technology

The secret is out about the benefits of virtualization and server consolidation at headquarters and in the data center, in terms of capital savings as well as reductions in power and cooling expenses and maintenance costs. Too often, branch office operations are left out of that conversation, which is understandable but unfortunate.

It’s understandable, given that national and multinational corporations may have many geographically dispersed branch offices, making the technology installed in those locations more of a sprawling management challenge. But it’s unfortunate, since consolidation of branch office environments represents a major opportunity for savings from server virtualization.

Done right, branch office technology consolidation can both save money and improve the level of service provided to branch office workers. According to Forrester Research, branch offices average about 10 servers each and house between one-third to half of all company data. Often, deployed email servers and other IT services duplicate functionality existing elsewhere. Forrester also found that branch offices use more energy than at headquarters. So if you confine energy-saving efforts to just centralized operations, you may be missing a bigger savings opportunity for both hardware and maintenance costs.

Evolution of Consolidation Efforts

Many enterprises have now gotten serious about consolidating IT operations and are now looking outward to their branch facilities. However, consolidation of branch server resources does pose different challenges. To do it right, many IT shops are moving to a “serverless” branch office for the ultimate in cost and energy savings. With some wide area network (WAN) optimization appliances, this is now possible without compromising performance, even for locally required domain controller and print server functions.

Moving to a serverless branch office requires investing in WAN optimization appliances that compensate for the distance between branch offices and the data center. While you can’t change the laws of physics, you can use WAN optimization appliances to cut down on the amount of network chatter passing back and forth to accomplish a given task, such as downloading a file or posting a ledger entry. This can give you local area network (LAN)-like performance over a more economical WAN network architecture.

Often, branch server consolidation is pursued side-by-side with voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) deployments using collaborative software that incorporates voice and video. In the Forrester study, almost 50% of organizations reported using IP voice and videoconferencing to help drive down travel costs. Here too, WAN optimization is essential, because without it voice and video transmissions are often jittery. Employees will only take maximum advantage of these services if they’re high quality – almost as good as being there.

In deploying WAN optimization appliances, there are some servers used to provide basic network services that don’t make sense to centralize. For example, the domain controller that provides IP addresses to PCs in the branch office, as well as the print server that queues up jobs to be fed to printers within the branch.

Utilizing WAN Appliances

One way to address the need for a limited number of local services in a serverless branch office is to host them on the WAN appliance itself. A relatively recent option added to some of these appliances is the ability to act as a host for a limited number of virtual machines. For example, some organizations use them to provide firewall and other security services, in addition to print servers and other core network “edge” services that benefit from being as close to the user as possible.

A well-designed WAN optimization appliance can provide fine grained control of data flow through these virtualized services, just as if they were on independent servers. In many instances, it’s possible to clear out the entire server room at a branch location and replace it with a WAN optimization appliance alone. Even if carrying consolidation to that degree is not practical, dramatic reductions in the number of servers maintained in a branch are clearly achievable.

Server consolidation in the data center is already a hit in many organizations. But the sequel may be even better. If yours is an organization with a sprawling branch network, the time to start consolidating it is now.

Industry Perspectives is a content channel at Data Center Knowledge highlighting thought leadership in the data center arena. See our guidelines and submission process for information on participating. View previously published Industry Perspectives in our Knowledge Library.

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