As connectivity and collaborative technologies improve, the technical barriers to operating multiple premises are coming down.
For example, a small retailer might have a head office in Glasgow, warehousing in Portsmouth and Harwich and a string of outlets and still employ fewer than 100 staff.
Such companies need secure connectivity between their sites every bit as much as their larger counterparts, but until recently a wide area network (WAN) would have been an expensive luxury, and quite possibly too inflexible for their needs. But WAN technology is moving down the size scale, with organisations with as few as five sites now investigating its possibilities.
A WAN connects disparate sites together, allowing them to use the same applications and share data securely. Successful deployment typically requires specialist skills, including an understanding of the LANs and connectivity technologies at each of the sites and the types of applications to be run over them.
Poor or unreliable access technology at a site can have a big effect on the way applications perform across the network because of low or intermittent bandwidth, but unfortunately this is the situation in many areas, especially rural ones where even standard ADSL broadband might be the stuff of dreams. Such sites are at the mercy of the technologies provided by their local exchange.
The WAN must optimise performance by balancing the access technologies available at the various sites with the workloads required of them. In the case of a traditional MPLS (multiprotocol layer switching) WAN, much of this task will come down to the client’s IT team, which presents a considerable barrier to their use in smaller organisations, especially where these access technologies are of variable quality.
According to a Computing survey of SMEs, one third of those running a WAN rated poor performance as the number one complaint. It is safe to say that inadequate access technologies are responsible for at least some of those problems.
Certainly, with the current double-figure increases in annual bandwidth demand, access technologies are becoming a real sticking point when it comes to WAN or VPN performance and one of the first issues that a company must address when seeking to improve its inter-site connectivity.
Case study: The Terrence Higgins Trust
Chris Cranie, independent consultant and IT director at sexual health charity Terrence Higgins Trust (THT), was faced with a variety of access technologies when his team came to upgrade their existing WAN. This legacy WAN was slow and expensive, both in terms of money and IT support time. A decision was made to replace it, as part of an ongoing plan to refresh much of the charity’s ageing infrastructure.
“We identified early on that the WAN needs to come first,” he said during a Computing web seminar.
Cranie explained that the Trust’s 30 sites have in place a variety of connectivity contracts and the chosen upgrade path at each location depends very much on local factors.
“We are looking to update the access technology at the sites. For some sites with issues we are looking at fibre Ethernet. For others, where we are not sure about the length of the contract we are looking at things like FTTC [fibre to the cabinet] to give us the necessary bandwidth, and where this is not available or the budget’s not there we’ll be using EFM [Ethernet in the first mile].
“Security is a huge issue for us. We’re moving towards a centralised firewall operating within a VPLS [Virtual Private LAN Service] WAN. Within this solution we are also moving our servers away from head office into a hosted environment, and looking to merge in communications infrastructure at a later date,” he said, explaining that moving from ISDN lines to SIP trunking through the WAN will allow offices to call each other for free, as well as facilitating more flexible working and increasing resilience.