Network Forecast: Need For WAN Optimization Growing

ForecastWell it’s that time of year again — Memorial Day just passed, and summer has officially kicked off.  The NHL playoffs are rolling along, my pool is opened up, and I’m prepping to have my kids get out of school and then bug me for snacks all day long as I try and work in my home office.  There are a couple of differences this year, though.  For one thing, the Red Sox aren’t out of the race yet, and for another, this Memorial Day marked the latest update to Cisco’s Visual Network Index (VNI) where the company tries to forecast what global IP traffic will look like for the next five years.

The index is a tool on Cisco’s website that can be accessed by anyone and then cut a number of different ways.  Consistent with VNIs of years past, this one forecasts the traffic out for five years, giving us a look at what IP traffic may look like in 2017.  From a high level perspective, the index shows that aggregate traffic will reach 1.4 ZB by the year 2014.  A ZB isn’t a ZeusByte, I’m afraid — it’s a Zettabyte,  a.k.a a trillion Gigabytes, which is a whole lot of traffic being pushed across our networks.

Looking at the data a bit deeper, we see that 73% of the connected devices in 2017 will be one of two “Ms” — Machine-to-Machine (M2M) enabled end points, and Mobile devices.  Historically, these two segments haven’t generated nearly the traffic of PCs, but that gap is closing.  The index predicts that in 2017, global IP traffic generated from PCs will fall from today’s 73.7% to a shade over 50% — a significant drop in just five years.  Compare that to the combination of smartphones, tablets, and M2M where we see traffic going from 3.1% today to 25% in 2017.  That’s an 8x increase in traffic for mobile and M2M, where PC-generated traffic declines about a third in the same time period.

The primary reason we see this shift, particularly with mobile devices, is the rise of video traffic.  Video is perhaps the most disruptive technology we’ve ever seen hit a network, and although it’s already playing havoc with service providers and corporate network mangers, the problem is only going to get worse.  Today, video accounts for 59% of all traffic — which in itself is significant — but the VNI predicts this will rise to 73% by 2017.  Personally, I think this number is low.  With all the new forms of video and the different ways to deliver it, video could reach 80% of all traffic by 2017.

Looking at the business implications, while the majority of this traffic is consumer-oriented, business IP traffic will also triple between 2012 and 2017.  Although this will amount to only 18% of all traffic, much of the 82% of traffic that is generated as consumer traffic will traverse the corporate network because of the consumerization factor.

Now, all of this data may scare network managers.  As a former network manager, I totally understand — corporate WANs are hard enough to manage, but to have to deal with a 3-to-5-fold increase in the amount of data seems to be a difficult, if not impossible task.

The tools to combat this trend are out there, though.  Many of the early WAN optimization deployments were for tactical purposes — to optimize the performance of a handful of applications — but WAN optimization technology has evolved significantly over the past few years.  By my estimates, the number of branch offices with an optimized connection is well south of 15%, meaning that the majority of connections to business locations will get crushed by the upcoming flood of traffic over the next five years.

Instead of being crippled by these increases, I think it’s time for IT leaders to consider WAN optimization to be a strategic, foundational technology that will allow companies to take advantage of the massive amounts of traffic being generated today and into the future.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons