You might think your branch offices are pretty rural, but chances are they're nothing compared to some - at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, the very nature of its business means that it has PCs in some of the most remote areas of the UK.

That proved a problem when it came to IT support, but the solution came from an unexpected direction. A chance encounter with WAN optimisation developer Riverbed Technology enabled WWT to do what it had previously thought impossible, and consolidate all its servers at one office instead.

"We rolled out Windows XP so we could do remote assistance, then we started to do what everyone else did, which was to roll out Exchange and fileservers to each of our nine visitor centres, because that was the only way to get decent performance," says Ian Wood, WWT's IT manager.

Each of the eight regional sites had between five and 20 users, with another 100 staff based in the head office at Slimbridge, Gloucestershire. Software in use included Microsoft Office and Exchange, and Adobe tools such as Indesign, Illustrator and Photoshop. In total, there were around 20 remote servers, which all connected into HQ.

The problem was that those servers then needed backing up, but there weren't the local IT skills to do it properly, nor could they be backed up over the wire.

"We use various communications, most sites are very remote and until earlier this year the best we could get for some of them was a dial-up modem," Wood says. He adds that even with that the recent expansion of ADSL coverage, its Caerlaverock visitors centre in the north of Scotland cannot get broadband.

From wetland to riverbed
"The only real alternative was to move the servers to the centre - Riverbed appeared on the scene at that point," he says. "I had not thought of latency before as something that could be dealt with in the way Riverbed suggested, but when I read that it could speed up data processes by 100 times, I was impressed. When I read that it could reduce the need for servers in these offices, I was sold."

The WWT bought eight of Riverbed's Steelhead 500 appliances for the regional centres and a Steelhead 1000 for Slimbridge. Wood says he was impressed with Steelhead because it's not just data compression - it also addresses the issues of latency and application protocol chattiness.

These two can really slow down application performance over a WAN. When users do simple tasks like opening a file on a Windows server, the application generates thousands of client-server interactions - fine on a LAN, but deadly on a WAN where each interaction can take hundreds of milliseconds.

An additional selling point was Riverbed's ability to optimise for specific applications, above and beyond the basic job of accelerating TCP traffic and reducing latency. In particular, it has a plug-in for MAPI, enabling it to make Exchange realistically usable over a WAN.

A match with Microsoft
"Riverbed was a good match for us because we are a Microsoft house," Wood says. "A lot of the other companies I looked at could accelerate all file access, say, but not email. I knew I was taking a slight risk because it was bleeding edge technology, and we did have a couple of software problems but we had patches for them within a day."

There's now a minimum 512Kbit/s broadband link to each office, with the exception of Caerlaverock where the Trust has had to splash out on a 256K leased line. Apart from the Steelhead appliances, all the local offices have is PCs. They no longer need their own Exchange or file servers - everything is done over the WAN instead, but at LAN speeds.

Ian Wood adds that the WAN means that WWT can manage its IT more easily too, plus it gives people access to much more data. Formerly, files stayed at the site where they were produced - a high-res image for a brochure can be 70MB, for example - but now everything is stored centrally, so offices can share files much more easily.

"We found we could take all the servers back to HQ, plus we needed fewer servers too, so we could scrap some. It also leveraged our spend on Veritas Data Lifecycle Manager," says Wood. "The end result was that it saved us £17,000 a year all told - that's a lot for a charity."