Extending Utility Computing Strategies into Branch Offices

IT is continually pressed to improve service levels while controlling the organization’s overall IT costs. A key driver to achieve this objective, and align IT with business priorities, is the utility computing strategy. We explore its benefits and how it can be applied to branch offices.

Many of today’s IT executives find themselves caught between two conflicting imperatives. The user community constantly asks for more applications to automate their business, access to more data to make better decisions, and ever-higher service levels. On the other end is the Board of Directors demanding that the CIO spend less on data centers, hardware, and human resources—while providing flawless service with fewer user complaints.

Utility computing is a computing model in which IT resources are dynamically and efficiently deployed according to the ever-changing application workload and business priorities. Consumers of these utility-computing services are charged for only the IT resources they consume, at the time they consume them. There are several key players and utility computing products, including IBM’s On-Demand initiative, HP’s Adaptive Enterprise, and Sun’s N1.

In most IT infrastructures, an overloaded resource or a hardware component’s failure causes unacceptable response time or, in some cases, causes application(s) to be unavailable.

In the utility computing model, existing IT resources are shared and managed so users can expect applications to always be available—and perform acceptably.

If IT resources are over utilized in one application and underutilized in the other, for example, they should be dynamically allocated to balance the load and provide acceptable user service levels.

In the case of a hardware failure of a file or application server, migration to another server in the cluster should take place automatically and transparently - without users being aware that the problem existed.

Extending Utility Computing into Branch Offices

While the utility computing concept has traditionally focused on the data center, enterprises are being asked to extend the concept to remote branch offices. This is appropriate since, according to recent market research, remote offices represent more than 87 percent of the workforce—while also representing the most significant potential for reducing IT costs and improving service levels.

Today’s enterprises have demonstrated that they can leverage their Utility Computing investment by consolidating branch IT services within their data centers. They can provide branch office users with the ubiquitous access to the centralized resources they demand, while also ensuring that corporate data is secure and protected – and maintained in compliance with policies established by the organization.

Indeed, IT consolidation is one of today’s hottest trends—it represents a way to reduce IT expenses and simplify management by taking advantage of the data center infrastructure. Forester Research estimates (conservatively, we think) that over 50 percent of the workforce resides in the branch offices—and that 70 percent of the enterprises will perform consolidation projects within the next 12 months.

Consolidation Approaches that Leverage Utility Computing

Two key branch IT consolidation approaches exist: Server-Based Computing (SBC) and Wide Area File Services (WAFS). Both approaches assume that data should reside in the data center and managed as a utility – one that is always available and performs according to changing business requirements. The SBC approach assumes that applications should also reside in the data center, while the WAFS approach assumes that applications are distributed and run on the users’ desktops.

Any consolidation approach that is evaluated and implemented should address the four key components in remote branches. These are Mail, Application (ERP, CRM), File Server and Branch IT Infrastructure (Print, DHCP, DNS.)

The Server- Based Computing Approach

SBC solutions were introduced several years ago as a means of providing consolidation - and have gained significant market momentum. The key concept behind SBC is that data and applications reside in the data center - and that the user interface is transferred over the WAN to branch users. In this scenario, mail and business applications run on data center servers while the user interface is transmitted to the branch users using the SBC protocol.

This solution introduces significant benefits as it relies on data center resources, takes advantage of centralized management and leverages the utility computing capabilities that were implemented. The primary drawback of this approach, however, is the degradation in performance of the applications combined with the reduction in productivity of branch users. For example:

  • For GUI-intensive applications such as the Microsoft-office suite, Outlook and CAD/CAM, end users are often frustrated with SBC solutions because of slow response times. The lack of timely responses prohibits them from accomplishing their tasks.

  • When a branch user needs to print a file, it is first generated in the data center (with all the required rendering and drivers) then transferred over the WAN. The transfer, which consumes high bandwidth, couples with slow response times and does not endear this solution to end users.

  • When a WAN outage occurs, the problem becomes exacerbated as branch users have no access to the data or applications (since they are stored centrally.)Some argue that SBC solutions do not reduce the number of servers and associated IT costs but, rather, increase them, since SBC solutions require organizations to add large server farms to their IT infrastructure.

The Wide Area File Services (WAFS) Approach

The second approach that leverages the utility computing strategy and extends it to branch users is a WAFS solution. These solutions enable branch users to access centralized file servers over their WANs but at LAN-like speeds. With a WAFS solution, companies benefit from employing their best IT practices and achieve significant cost savings as a result of using a shared infrastructure.

WAFS solutions are implemented by replacing branch file and print servers with an appliance that is easy to install and maintain. In this approach, data is stored in the data center, gaining the benefit of centralized management, while applications run on user desktops, achieving the high performance and end-user productivity of the distributed computing model. Once the WAFS solution is implemented, any utility computing investment at the data center that improves availability, capacity, and performance of the centralized file server is passed on to branch users. WAFS is limited to CIFS acceleration, however, and optimizes only branch office applications such as MS-Office and CAD/CAM (which use the CIFS protocol to access centralized file servers located in data centers.) WAFS solutions will not accelerate Mail or ERP applications. WAFS vendors claim that this is not a limitation and that WAFS complements other consolidation trends that exist in the market today. For example:

  • Exchange: Microsoft is leading the industry with consolidation solutions such as cache mode and Outlook Web Access. Providing a non-Microsoft consolidation solution may be beneficial to some organizations in the short term, but will probably not endure and/or may not be cost justified in the long term.

  • Applications: Application vendors are introducing Web-based versions of their applications, such as Oracle 11i, new versions of SAP, PeopleSoft, and Siebel, resulting in consolidation to the data center.

  • File Server: Is addressed by WAFS solutions.

  • The Branch IT infrastructure functionality (including print, DHCP, DNS, SMS, RIS) that usually resides on branch file servers, should be addressed to advance branch server consolidation.

WAFS solutions, although focused on File and Print services, address the key issues of SBC solutions:

  • GUI-intensive applications performance issue: With WAFS solutions, applications run locally on branch users’ desktops and provide fast response time that contribute to end user productivity.

  • Response time and WAN consumption issue caused by remote printing: WAFS solutions provide local printing services that ensure fast response times and minimize bandwidth consumption.

  • WAN outage issue: WAFS solutions allow branch users to remain productive in the event of a WAN outage by using their applications on their desktops and accessing cached data in the WAFS appliance.


The utility computing concept—with its objectives of reducing IT costs and improving service levels—in gaining momentum in the market as both SBC and WAFS solutions create opportunities to extend their respective approach within branch offices. Each approach offers unique benefits that address specific business requirements, and both enable enterprises to leverage their IT investments and best practices. Both look at operations within data centers (including DRP, storage, security policy, and quota management) that will benefit branch users while also achieving significant cost benefits for the businesses.

Based on their specific requirements and business objectives, enterprises can select either solution—or a combination of the two—to achieve their goals.