Selecting a Branch Office Box

There is no doubt that there is a lot of discussion in the industry about redesigning the data center. While that is certainly an important topic, IT organizations also need to spend some time thinking about redesigning their branch offices in part to respond to the increasing availability of virtual networking functionality.

It is helpful to remember that the branch office of a decade ago was usually built using a highly distributed model in which the branch office hosted most of the applications that the branch office users needed to access. Around five or six years ago, the cost, control, and security issues associated with this model persuaded the majority of IT organizations to embark on programs to centralize IT resources such as servers and applications.

One of the ironies of the current approach to branch office design is that while it tends to reduce the number of servers that are in a branch office, in many cases it has resulted in a proliferation of appliances. This proliferation has contributed to an increased level of complexity and higher operational expenses. In somewhat of a worst-case scenario, a branch office could house separate appliances providing network and application optimization, routing, firewall, anti-virus, intrusion detection and prevention, denial of service mitigation, and web filtering.

In some of my recent blogs, I have discussed virtual Wan Optimization Controllers (WOCs). The reality is that almost all network functions are being virtualized. In order to quantify the acceptance of virtual networking functionality, I recently surveyed 230 IT professionals and asked them whether or not their company had deployed any virtual functionality in their branch office networks. Just under half of the respondents indicated that they already had. I also asked the survey respondents to indicate with type of virtual functionality their organization had implemented in their branch office networks. The most common responses were firewalls (42%), followed by WOCs (27%) and Intrusion Detection/Protection systems (19%).

As IT organizations rethink how they will support the needs of branch offices users, one of the key questions that they face is choosing which type of Branch Office Box (BOB) they use to house virtual functionality Should BOB be a general-purpose server? A router? A generic appliance? A purpose-built appliance?

There are some straightforward criteria that IT organizations should use when choosing a BOB’s form factor. The most obvious one is the total cost of ownership (TCO) of the device. As part of analyzing the device’s TCO, IT organizations need to consider several factors. One of those factors is the longevity of the device. Another factor is the scalability of the device.  In particular, IT organizations need to determine if the device will scale to provide the performance that is needed for the foreseeable future. More generally, IT organizations need to know at what point they would have to upgrade the device and how much that upgrade would cost.

However, it isn’t good for your company or for your career to choose the device with the lowest TCO if that device doesn’t provide the required security functionality. In addition to security, one of the challenges of the current environment is managing all of the different vendors whose products are deployed in branch offices. Hence, for at least some IT organizations, an important criterion for choosing BOB’s form factor is whether or not the device comes with a “single throat to choke”.  Also, as recently as a year or two ago, VMware was synonymous with virtualization. While VMware is still the leader in server virtualization, it is becoming increasingly common to come across other hypervisors (e.g., KVM, Hyper-V, Xen) and applications written to run on them. Hence, another important decision criterion is which hypervisors the device supports.

As the survey results indicate, IT organizations are beginning to make a significant deployment of virtual networking functionality in branch offices. Using the criteria described above to choose the most appropriate form factor for their BOB will help ensure success.

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About the author
Jim Metzler
Jim has a broad background in the IT industry. This includes serving as a software engineer, an engineering manager for high-speed data services for a major network service provider, a product manager for network hardware, a network manager at two Fortune 500 companies, and the principal of a consulting organization. In addition, Jim has created software tools for designing customer networks for a major network service provider and directed and performed market research at a major industry analyst firm. Jim’s current interests include both cloud networking and application and service delivery. Jim has a Ph.D. in Mathematics from Boston University.