Canadian Cancer Society Ontario cures WAN woes

The Canadian Cancer Society’s Ontario chapter wanted something that would easily solve its application performance issues, but no one suspected it would be so easy the secretaries would handle the implementations.

A national, community-based organization that is the largest charitable funder of research in the country, Canadian Cancer Society Ontario (CCS Ontario) has a wide-area network that connects two national offices in Toronto and Ottawa as well as 600 community locations. Managing the servers at all those remote locations takes up a lot of resources, however, which is why, like many firms, CCS Ontario has been consolidating its IT infrastructure to become more a “private cloud” environment. That’s when the problems started.

“They were old servers – there was no redundancy in disk storage, and we had trouble getting backups done over the network overnight,” says Gerry Holmes, IT director at CCS Ontario. “We started to look at what it was going to cost us to replace all those servers with server-class machines and at the same time, we had been looking at a project to upgrade the data centre and do some consolidation in there.”

The trouble was, e-mail and Internet services would slow to a trickle through such a project. Holmes was referred to WAN optimization vendor Riverbed through a channel partner. After watching a Webinar and being persuaded Riverbed’s Steelhead appliance could meet his firm’s needs, Holmes authorized a pilot at its Brampton, Ontario office.  

“We sent it out to the office with instructions and asked people in the office to install it,” he said. “Really, it was only a power plug and two cables, but we provided them with detailed instructions. They backed up their local file server to our data centre, re-established local file server access in the data centre and turned on the Riverbed (product).”

Holmes’ team didn’t tell the rest of the Brampton staff what was going on, but initially everything was running fine.

“We had to shut down the Riverbed (Steelhead appliance) in the afternoon, I don’t remember why. Minutes after we shut it down, we got a call from the Brampton office. ‘What have you done to our e-mail?’ It was accelerated so fast as to be noticeable once the WAN optimization wasn’t running.”

The implementation allowed CCS Ontario to establish a consolidation program and bring all of the servers in from various offices into a data centre where they can be properly cared for. Holmes’ team has since consolidated everything into one giant file server, eliminated backup problem (now that everything is in the data centre) and improved the quality of service for other centralized applications, such as CRM and a few things that were running on Citrix.

“The amazing thing was not something we had planned,” he said. While the process of converting the IT infrastructure across the province took about six to eight months, there wasn’t a lot of onsite IT staff available. “We actually have local secretaries installing these devices.”

Tracy Corbo, an analyst with Enterprise Management Associates, said many organizations are encountering similar performance bottlenecks as they attempt to consolidate their IT infrastructure and move to the cloud.

“The problem is that you’re often talking about a lot of apps that weren’t designed for distribution over a WAN. There’s a lot of home-grown stuff,” she said. “There’s also the mobility aspect of this stuff, where you’re adding services to different devices. WAN optimization and load balancing aren’t going away anytime soon.”

Because of the reduction in traffic – which in some offices was 80 per cent on the DSL circuits – CCS Ontario has since upgraded its phone system as well. Individual Nortel phone PBXes in each office have been replaced with Mitel products, local lines coming into the office with centralized voice mail. This has improved service overall, Holmes says.

“We were able to enable ‘warm transfers.’ Instead of calling up and being given a 1-800 number, for example, we can transfer you to the people who really help you.”

Although the Riverbed Steelheads are considered a major product in this category, Corbo said there are competitors who are differentiating in the kinds of traffic they can accelerate, or focusing more specifically on mobile workers and applications. Whatever the vendor, however, she said the payoff is pretty quick.

“You get immediate pain relief,” she said. “The CIO’s getting bugged because the app they’re just rolled out is not working. You cut down and free up the flow once you drop WAN optimization in there.”

Although such appliances aren’t cheap, they could be a lot less expensive than upgrading a leased line, which is a month to month expense, she added, likening WAN optimization to putting food in a crock pot. “You drop them in and forget about it.” 

Holmes said CCS Ontario is now looking at offering employees videoconferencing. On DSL, the carriers don’t always provide the necessarily quality of service for the traffic, but he believes Riverbed’s WAN optimization will make it possible.

“We’re trying to understand the requirements, who would use it and making sure you’re controlling it a little bit,” he said. “You could bring parts of the network to its knees if they’re carrying on concurrent videoconferences in some of the smaller offices.”

And that would be, obviously, less than optimal.

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