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IN BRIEF

Industry

  • Professional services

Challenges

  • Deadline-driven professionals demanded high application performance
  • Additional bandwidth failed to improve performance
  • Microsoft SharePoint-based client portal must streamline file delivery and function flawlessly to reflect well on the firm

Solution

  • Steelhead WAN optimization
  • Stingray Traffic Manager software-based ADC

Benefits

  • Millions of dollars in savings
  • Boosted productivity and end-user experience
  • Streamlined operations

Consulting Firm

Steelhead and Stingray Make Applications Work for Busy Professional Services Firm

With a couple thousand employees and dozens of branch offices, this professional consulting firm services all fifty U.S. states.

Challenge: Application performance for professionals with tight deadlines and clients with high expectations

Similar to many companies, this firm’s IT direction is toward the centralization of applications and data within regional data centers. The challenge for the IT team has been to make sure this transition doesn’t negatively affect the firm’s own end users or its clients.

“These are professionals doing high-pressure, deadline-driven work,” says one of the firm’s IT managers. “When their IT systems are not responsive, it goes against what they are trying to accomplish. Given the inflexibility of their deadlines, they are very sensitive when things are not performing well.”

Two initiatives brought the issue of application performance to a head. The first was the attempt to centralize one of the firm’s critical applications, which performed very poorly over the wide-area network (WAN). “We were told by the vendor that the more bandwidth you throw at it, the better it would perform,” says the manager. “That was not the case. We saw no difference in performance across 3, 6, or 9-megabit connections.”

The second initiative was a Microsoft SharePoint-based client portal. This feature-rich collaboration platform promised to greatly improve how the firm collected and delivered information to and from clients.

“We had been using a variety of other delivery mechanisms with limited success. We wanted to streamline that process for our employees so they could focus less on tracking down documents and more on their actual work. At the same time, we wanted to create a better experience for the clients,” the manager explains. The portal needed to function fast and flawlessly for everyone who used it.

Solution: Steelhead WAN optimization appliances and Stingray Traffic Manager software

The first step toward ensuring the success of these initiatives was the deployment of Riverbed® Steelhead® WAN optimization appliances to give the firm’s employees faster access to centralized data and applications. “I cannot extol the virtues of Steelhead enough,” the manager says. “If I were to take them out of the network, our end users would revolt because none of our applications would function efficiently.”

In addition to improving the performance of centralized applications, the Steelhead appliances have greatly reduced the amount of traffic going across the network. “For every four gigabytes of Microsoft Exchange traffic that goes between a data center and a remote site, we’re only transmitting one gigabyte,” explains the manager. “And for our electronic document management system, for every three gigabytes that have to go back and forth, we only transmit one gigabyte.”

The success of the Steelhead deployment made the selection of an application delivery controller (ADC) for the Microsoft SharePoint-based client portal “a no-brainer,” according to the manager. In the choice between the Riverbed Stingray™ Traffic Manager software and product from F5, “there was not even a need for a bake-off,” he says.

“Because of our relationship with our Cisco partner, F5 would have been their load balancer of choice, and I’m glad we did not go that way. As soon as I found out that Riverbed had acquired Zeus [now called Riverbed Stingray Traffic Manager], the advantage went to Riverbed. Just look at the caliber of products Riverbed puts in their portfolio – they all have awesome technical merit.” A brief test drive with Stingray showed that it would be “easy to deploy, easy to support, flexible, and robust,” he adds.

Once Stingray Traffic Manager was in use, the IT team found other features they liked as well. One was the interface, which the manager describes as “a pleasure to work with,” adding, “If you need to configure something, you click on a hyperlink to get to anywhere to need. With a modest investment in time, you can get up to speed quickly.”

They also appreciate the breadth of functionality that is built in to Stingray, particularly as it streamlines and supports the way developers prepare and harden an application for production. The Stingray™ TrafficScript customization language, for example, lets them watermark instances running in the quality and assurance (QA) pool with the response time and specific pool accessed. This immediately answers two top-of-mind questions for developers in testing and accelerates the troubleshooting time for code releases.

Also, built-in load generators are helpful in “smoke testing” new features and applications. “We used the built-in load generators during the development of a new user interface to simulate traffic that was six times past our bandwidth capacity,” the manger explains. “The load balancers hardly noticed. As for the capabilities in Stingray, I think we’ve barely scratched the surface.” The firm has plans to implement other Stingray functionality such as global load balancing and the integrated Stingray™ Application Firewall.

Riverbed support for Stingray was consistent with the firm’s experience with Steelhead products and it confirmed the wisdom of not choosing the Cisco/F5 alternative. “Riverbed support is unbelievable!” says the manager. “They once spent 30 minutes with my team for a fix. If we had gone with F5, we would not have been so lucky.”

Benefits: Avoided bandwidth purchases and other cost savings; performance goals met

The Riverbed solution has saved this firm a great deal of money already by eliminating the need to purchase additional bandwidth, and it is expected to bring additional savings in the future. In a conservative estimate, the IT manager believes that without the Steelhead appliances, the company would have needed to purchase at least three times more bandwidth to get the performance they have now, wasting millions of dollars.

Stingray software, as part of the infrastructure for the Microsoft SharePoint-based client portal, is expected to contribute additional cost savings in the future as the company scales its deployment. “Now that we have created this infrastructure, we can adapt it for other areas of the business,” the manager says.

The Riverbed solution allows their applications to perform well over the WAN. In addition, the client portal has streamlined and standardized the collection of client data, reaping the benefits of centralization without hindering the work of its deadline-driven professionals.

Clients benefit as well. “They get an application that is always available and not riddled with technical glitches, and they don’t have service outages due to capacity or robustness issues. They get a consistent experience whenever they visit the portal,” says the manager.

The IT department now works more efficiently too, which is critical to this group of approximately 50 members who support thousands of end users. Stingray Traffic Manager operates very reliably in the firm’s VMware environment. “I have never had one crash with Stingray, nor have I had to perform a restart,” the manager notes. “With Riverbed, we have a solid, robust platform that we don’t have to babysit.”

This solution also fosters collaboration between IT and software developers. For example, using Stingray TrafficScript to create both a production environment and a QA environment for new applications supports how IT is increasingly focusing on application development. “The benefit is on the troubleshooting side,” the manager explains. “Stingray immediately tells what physical box we are talking to, and gives a sense for the amount of time the back-end processes are taking.”

Overall, the decision to base the enterprise application centralization and client portal initiatives on Riverbed products has been a good one for this firm. “It’s imperative that as we deploy technologies into our network, they have a robust feature set and great stability, and bring tremendous value into the network,” the manger concludes. “Both Steelhead and Stingray do that.”

SUMMARY

In its move toward centralization, this professional services firm needed applications to perform fast and flawlessly over the WAN so that slow application performance didn’t hamper the work of the deadline-driven professionals. The firm needed its SharePoint client portal to function equally well to reflect highly on the firm.

When additional bandwidth failed to improve application performance over the WAN, the firm deployed Steelhead appliances. In addition to improving the performance of centralized applications, the appliances greatly reduced the amount of traffic going across the network (e.g., a 75% reduction in Exchange traffic, saving millions of dollars in bandwidth upgrade costs).

The success with Steelhead appliances led the firm to deploy Stingray Traffic Manager software, without even a bake-off against the other possible load balancer, F5. Stingray Traffic Manager ensures that clients have consistently excellent experience when they exchange documents via the web portal. Now IT operations is more efficient and there’s better collaboration between IT and software development.

“Just look at the caliber of products Riverbed puts in their portfolio – they all have awesome technical merit.”

“With Riverbed, we have a solid, robust platform that we don’t have to be babysit.”

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