Storing large project files separately in its 20 offices worked fine for environmental engineering firm GEI Consultants until employees with different specialities had to start collaborating on jobs.

Once those electronic documents had to be worked on at more than one site, both transmitting and keeping track of them became a challenge, according to CIO Ray Barrie. Server consolidation looked like the answer, and the company started planning for it. But there was so much latency across GEI's network connections that transfers of CAD (computer-aided design) and GIS (geographic information systems) files, which were 800M bytes and larger, took several hours.

"People quickly realise the effect of latency when you're passing a very large file," Barrie says. "That issue was really a roadblock for us trying to look at centralising storage of my company's files." GEI had to take the project off the drawing board.

GEI, with 340 employees, is not alone among medium-size enterprises in wanting to centralise its servers or make the links between its remote sites run faster, according to industry analysts. Most medium-size companies have at least three or four facilities, and just having a file server, print server and Active Directory server in each location can create an expensive headache for a small IT staff, says Rob Whiteley of Forrester Research.

"It's a quick hit for cost savings and operational efficiency to centralise all that," Whiteley adds.

But before it could do so, GEI needed a WAN (wide-area network) optimisation system to reduce delays. Server centralisation is one of several factors, including backups and Windows file sharing, that are leading medium-size companies to seek WAN optimisation, says Michael Brandenburg of Current Analysis.

"Eventually, every enterprise or SMB is going to get to that point," he says.

US-based GEI provides consulting services to developers, governments and other clients concerning geological, water and environmental issues. Its offices throughout the US range from five to about 50 employees, and its engineers have a wide range of specialities, Barrie says.

Until recently, each of those offices tended to work on its own projects without much help from others, Barrie said. But as GEI's projects grow more complex, employees with different skills rely on each other more.

"Our collaborative work between our offices is only going to increase," Barrie says. That often means importing CAD and GIS files from across the country, making changes, and sending them back. Also, IT staff needs to give employees from different offices the rights to get into the remote files they need. Putting all that information in one data centre, with a standard system of naming and organising files, would help employees find the correct version of each file to work with, he said. It would also make it easier to properly keep or discard versions of files, which helps with record-keeping laws and court cases, he notes.

Even as it plans for server consolidation, GEI is making changes in its network that make WAN optimisation more critical. The company is rolling out IP (Internet Protocol) telephony across its offices, which adds new traffic to its data network. And as part of that move and to increase security, it is switching from individual Internet connections for each office to an MPLS (multiprotocol label switching) managed service. That means all offices share one connection to the carrier network, a potential bottleneck, so GEI needs to make more efficient use of its bandwidth, Barrie says.

While investigating server consolidation, Barrie was introduced to Exinda Networks, an Australian vendor of WAN optimisation and application acceleration gear. GEI set out to solve its latency problem and now has Exinda appliances in nine of its sites that already have MPLS connectivity. Ultimately, the company will probably install twice that many, Barrie said. The devices have slashed transfer times by 30 to 40 percent, he says.

The market is full of WAN optimisation products, but many are designed for large enterprises. GEI chose Exinda partly because it cost less than alternatives such as Packeteer or Riverbed, Barrie says.

He's not alone, according to Forrester's Whiteley. The first wave of a network technology is usually geared toward large enterprises, and WAN optimisation is now in its second phase, so vendors such as Exinda are going after smaller customers that are more sensitive to price and want a product that's sized right for their business, he says.

Another highlight of Exinda's product is that it can deliver detailed information about how GEI's network is being used, adds Barrie. This became more important with MPLS, because with the new network, all the offices share a common entry point to the Internet, he said. It showed Barrie's team what kinds of traffic were going through that link so they could block non-work applications, such as Internet radio, that got in the way. The visibility is also providing baseline information about network load so the IT department can make a case for more bandwidth if it's needed as a result of data-centre consolidation, he says.

But before centralising its servers and storage, which Barrie estimated at 4T bytes of data, GEI needs to find an effective document management system it can afford, he adds. The company will probably consolidate its data centre in early 2009, Barrie says.