Spending too much time waiting for large files to download from other locations in your business? Then maybe it's time you looked into wide area network (WAN) acceleration. While not for every business, if your company fits certain criteria the technology could eliminate 60 to 90 percent of your existing bandwidth traffic, increasing efficiency and opening more opportunities for expanded uses of your network without the additional cost.

"We wouldn't be functioning at the level we're currently at without WAN optimization appliances," says Karl Fischer, IT manager for Traffic Planning and Design, Inc. Now with 140 employees in four locations in Pennsylvania, the transportation engineering firm has been using WAN acceleration for almost three years. Fischer credits the technology with enabling more efficient uses of the company's networking, showing an 85 percent reduction in peak bandwidth utilization over the WAN.

The company installed voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) about a year after optimizing the WAN, "something we could never have done before," Fischer says. The firm sends a lot of graphical computer aided drawing (CAD) files between offices. "Now, files that used to take 30 seconds or more to download, the same file takes about 4 seconds," Fischer says. "It's like having four T1's instead of just one."

To optimize or not to optimize 

WAN acceleration is a method of optimizing networks to better utilize existing bandwidth. Many new and old technology companies are offering forms of WAN acceleration, by using different combinations of techniques such as compressing traffic that crosses a WAN, caching, and accelerating applications involved by improving their performance.

Whether a company can benefit from WAN acceleration is really a matter of how it uses its existing WAN connections. If your business is mostly involved in passing e-mails and small documents, or has all its offices in the same city, then it probably wouldn't make much sense. However, give it some consideration if your company has more than one location, employees working remotely or telecommuting, or employs remote servers, storage, or backups. If large amounts of data are regularly moved over large distances -- like video, graphic design, financial or scientific data, software, and any other large files -- then WAN acceleration just might be your next important investment.

Justin Lofton, systems engineer at consultancy firm Tredent Data System, explains how the technology works. "It gets faster the more you use it," Lofton says. "The optimization appliance keeps a record of everything that passes through it. After a file is sent, any subsequent transfers only require sending changes to that file, massively reducing the amount of data sent."

Enterprise technology now for small business

At one time, only enterprise level companies could afford the six-figure cost to utilize it. But more recently, small and mid-size businesses are now finding WAN acceleration an essential part of how they do business. For one thing, the technology has gotten better and easier to implement, as well as much more affordable. But also, smaller companies are increasingly working from scattered locations, passing large chunks of data over long distances. If this sounds like your company, then staying with the widely-used TCP system is very likely slowing you down.
Riverbed Technology, Inc., one of the top suppliers in the WAN acceleration field, recently released a new appliance that enables laptops to get the same kind of acceleration, allowing companies with workers out on the road to work from home or even commercial or free Wi-Fi hotspots. Even a small company can now get impressive throughput that will allow it to compete in much wider regions, even the global market.

"WAN optimization allows you to make positive business changes, like bringing your storage, backups, or servers into a central location for better control and security, " says Steve Dixon, general manager for Riverbed's subsidiary in Sydney, Australia.

"The goal is to make the WAN disappear, like everyone is all together, doing business in the same place," says Dixon. "That's how company communication should feel."