Sometimes the easiest projects are among the most gratifying -- in the case of Thomas Weisel Partners and its WAN optimisation technology deployment, instantly so. With little effort and minimal cost, the network engineering team boosted WAN performance and turned user complaints into compliments, within a matter of minutes.

With WAN optimisation appliances from Riverbed Technology, Thomas Weisel Partners has reduced the amount of data traversing the network by about 60 percent, says Kevin Fiore, director of engineering services at the San Francisco-based investment bank. Of the 23TB of data requested each month by remote users, about 9TB has to be delivered over the WAN, he says. As a result, remote file-sharing has improved, backup times have decreased and the network supports an increasing amount of real-time data, such as VoIP and video, without pause.

Thomas Weisel Partners taps into numerous capabilities of the Riverbed Steelhead appliances and the Riverbed Optimisation System software to achieve that 60 percent optimisation rate. These include packet compression, TCP optimisation, application acceleration and data reduction. For the latter, the operating system analyses and stores large traffic patterns locally, eliminating trips across the WAN. Any type of application can tap into the data.

With the appliances, "WAN utilisation is more efficient, redundant WAN data is no longer sent, and more data is being sent per payload on each TCP round trip," Fiore says.

The CIFS nightmare

At Thomas Weisel Partners, remote Windows CIFS-based file sharing accounts for a good chunk -- 40 percent -- of the WAN traffic benefiting from the appliances, Fiore says. The optimisation of CIFS has been a godsend to users in New York, who had expressed extreme dissatisfaction with how much time it took to work with data sitting in San Francisco. Fiore says he discovered the appliances from Riverbed as he searched for ways to address the slowness associated with the company's file-sharing environment.

"Associates would be trying to open up financial models, presentations or other relatively large files, and it would take a while to do so over the WAN because of latency," Fiore says. (CIFS, because it relies on a large number of back-and-forth transactions to complete a request, is known for performing poorly over high-latency WAN links.)

Even worse for users, Fiore says, was the prolonged amount of time it took Windows Explorer to display the directory structure. "One of the main complaints was that they spent more time trying to find a file than they did actually opening the file," he says. "Mentally, they could handle waiting 15 seconds or however long for the file to open, because they knew it was opening. But not even being able to start that process while the directory structure opened -- that annoyed them."

With productivity at stake, finding a fix was a high priority. Fiore's team members attacked the problem in many ways. They tried applying search technology to circumvent using the directory, for instance. And they worked with Microsoft to tweak operating system and server configurations. "Nothing we tried gave us enough satisfaction," he says.

Optimisation appliances were a logical next step, but at the time (late 2005), Fiore says he found many of the options too limiting. He wanted to be able to optimise other data types, such as HTTP, Microsoft Exchange Messaging API and Oracle database logs; and the products were too focused on optimising the Microsoft CIFS process alone, he says.

Riverbed turned out to be the exception.

Fiore's team began evaluating the Steelhead appliances one night, installing one at each end of the WAN link between New York and San Francisco. Within about 20 minutes of uncrating the devices, they were up and running. The next morning, New Yorkers noticed the improvement at once. "By the time I got in my office at 8 o'clock Pacific, emails were circulating from key business users thanking IT for solving their problem," Fiore recalls. He cut a purchase order for the appliances that same morning.

Since then, Fiore has added Steelhead appliances to optimise traffic between San Francisco and the company's other offices, in Boston; Portland, Oregon; and Mumbai, India. In total, WAN optimisation has cost about US$200,000, including maintenance. Across all those WAN links, Fiore reports reducing the amount of CIFS traffic for April by about 59 percent.

Optimisation by association

True to Fiore's expectations, CIFS is far from the only data type benefiting from the appliances. April statistics show significant optimisation percentages for a wide variety of other data, he says. For example, Oracle data (log shipping for databases) is 88 percent optimised; HTTP data (for CRM and other internal Web applications), 85 percent; EMC Centera-based email archiving repository data, 84 percent; and replicated storage-area network data, 84 percent.

There have been unexpected benefits, too -- "little weird things we've caught over time," Fiore says. Web surfing is an example. At Thomas Weisel Partners, a web-monitoring application sits in San Francisco. That means that the local router -- for instance, in New York -- must communicate back and forth over the WAN to request permission to allow access to a particular site. With optimisation, that yes/no process is much faster. "It looks like we improved the Internet connection, but we didn't. We just improved the lookup for approvals," Fiore says.

"The reality is, Riverbed is doing a lot more for us than solving the problem we were trying to solve," he says. "That's pretty cool, given that a more typical IT scenario is buying custom solutions that only solve specific problems," he adds. "So this has been nothing short of remarkable -- honestly."