Making a Case for Including WAN Optimization in your Global SharePoint Deployment

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1 Making a Case for Including WAN Optimization in your Global SharePoint Deployment Written by: Mauro Cardarelli Mauro Cardarelli is co-author of "Essential SharePoint Delivering High Impact Collaboration" and "Essential SharePoint Overview, Governance, and Planning". His deep knowledge of the Microsoft platform and recognized expertise in the areas of knowledge management and business intelligence make him a popular technology expert with experience. He has been published in various industry journals and is a featured speaker at many industry conferences. Mauro has 20 years of experience designing and building technology solutions for customers representing a wide range of industry verticals. Mauro holds Microsoft Certified Solution Developer for.net, Microsoft Certified Database Administrator (MCDBA), and Microsoft Certified Applications Developer (MCAD) certifications. 1

2 Executive Summary There are many decisions to be made in the process of building or extending a SharePoint environment. As with most things, timing is critical. You want to give your users what they want and need in an easy to use, efficient interface. This leads to design and planning involving, among other things, the appropriate hardware and server configuration to ensure that SharePoint can be an effective and well-used collaboration and communication platform. The challenge, of course, is thinking through all requirements to ensure that everyone uses and embraces SharePoint. There is urgency in this. What do you need to think about, right now, to ensure a solid and effective user experience? This whitepaper focuses on one element, WAN optimization, and why it is important to think about it today. Defining the urgency from a business perspective Give your users what they already expect Organizations planning to launch or grow a SharePoint environment typically spend a fair amount of time collecting requirements and feedback from business users. Too often, however, companies don t give enough weight to assumptions made about user experience, performance and response time. That is, while users may not articulate requirements associated with application responsiveness, it is always assumed that the user experience will be crisp and information will be delivered quickly. Meeting these expectations is a tremendous challenge for IT departments which are heavily focused on other areas of the deployment such as ensuring that the solutions meet functional requirements. The situation gets more complex when a distributed workforce is supported. The bottom line is that, independent of the functionality and promise that a SharePoint environment may offer, if the user experience in terms of page rendering and downloads is not acceptable workers simply won t use the tool. Make bold statements and then deliver on them In the process of envisioning the power of a corporate portal, a business sponsor may make the bold statement that the portal should touch every desktop and positively impact every employee. How do you stand behind a statement like this in an environment of geographically dispersed co-workers? SharePoint is a product built around a content hub. That means the SQL Server databases (which are the heart of SharePoint and contains all the content) are located in one place only. With a geographically distributed team, that means data (and potentially large amounts of data) needs to travel farther and, without any supplemental assistance, naturally take longer to get to the user. For an employee in a remote office, this translates to document downloads potentially taking several minutes and immediately contradicts the goal/vision of having a consistent, positive experience for all users. If an organization is willing to make the bold statement that collaboration with SharePoint will be available to all users and that the experience will include acceptable performance in all cases then that organization must include the infrastructure support to deliver on the vision. More importantly, organizations should consider this infrastructure support BEFORE the user experience is adversely affected. An interesting comparison here is that many organizations often invest in a disaster recovery solution to support the business critical nature of SharePoint 2

3 usage (which, by the way, is highly recommended). However, disaster recovery is fundamentally about protecting the availability of the assets and is based on the assumption that the content has value. WAN optimization, in turn, is about providing consistent and fast response time for all users (who are responsible for the submission and consumption of the content). Think of it this way, disaster recovery is like having a copy of all your important stuff in a well-protected safety deposit box. It offers assurance that you can always get something back. WAN optimization is about providing easy access to the box so all appropriate users will have the ability to quickly add and access the stuff. Another comparison that may be helpful is governance. While there are various methodologies and approaches for the application of a governance strategy for SharePoint, it is certainty true that there comes a point when effective governance is increasing difficult based on the maturity of the environment. Note, it is not impossible but harder and with a greater consequence to users. The same is true with WAN optimization. Dealing with potential delays related to slow SharePoint document downloads before they are reported will help clear early hurdles associated with user adoption and content contribution. What you re missing when all user experiences are not equal Often, when download times in remote offices exceed acceptable user limits SharePoint technical resources begin to alter the farm topology of a deployment in hopes of mitigating the problem. One example is the concept of regional servers. This involves creating small SharePoint farms that are geographically located in areas close to some subset of the users. Does that really solve the problem or even help from a business perspective? It absolutely complicates technical support and, more importantly, limits the amount of collaboration that can occur with co-workers outside these geographies. Regional servers only help if the goal is to provide an environment for local employees only. If the goal is to provide collaboration across an entire distributed workforce then the infrastructure must support this. Without it, organizations risk isolating remote (from the hub) users. What is the impact? When all users are not provided equal access to corporate content then the organization, in turn, is not getting equal access to corporate knowledge. The value of content repositories becomes skewed as they don t represent the full gamut of information. This translates to inaccurate or poor search results. It also introduces inefficiencies and inconsistencies in areas where quick access to content is not available. Suffice to state that from a knowledge management perspective collaboration systems are less valuable and less impactful when access to the system is not consistent across all knowledge owners. Can an organization truly risk deploying SharePoint to a distributed workforce without a strategy that ensures that its capabilities and benefits are equally delivered to all users? Driving user adoption with better response times For those organizations that can deliver acceptable response time to all employees, independent of location, there are noticeable increases in user activity and participation. This means more knowledge resources are putting content into SharePoint and, therefore, a higher number of knowledge consumers can leverage that content for operational efficiency. User adoption, especially on an initial deployment, is a key component of success and sustainability. It must be high (and stay high) in order to gain the true impact of a collaboration system. Of 3

4 course, a major element of user adoption is business value. A visit to an intranet or collaboration space must contain repeatable positive perception in order to engage users as repeat customers. With that, however, there must be an ability to provide quick access to that high value content. That means, discovery of a Word document or Excel spreadsheet must be extended to include a rapid download and quick access to details via the client tool even if the file is 50MB. Without proper response time, users will not embrace the system and, if the problem is truly geographically isolated, may feel isolated and protest the existence of a system that discriminates based on location. Measuring the ROI of an optimized environment How can you quantify the gains associated with an optimized user experience for all employees? More downloads? More content? Shortened cycles for project or product deliveries? What if it was all of these and more? There is indeed a method of calculating a noticeable (financials included) return on investment for a SharePoint environment that has been optimized for general usage. User statistics can be analyzed; user feedback can be gathered. Data will show that it is used more. More importantly, a SharePoint-based collaboration environment that is optimized for general use will contain content and interaction across the workforce. This translates to establishing new remote offices more quickly and with more efficiency, connecting to content experts more quickly, having shorter sales cycles, delivering project more quickly and the list goes on. Return on investment associated with an infrastructure primed to support a distributed workforce can be measured immediately and through every phase of system growth. This makes it easier to engage consumers and producers of content, both critical for application success. Preparing for the cloud Microsoft has committed to being at the forefront of the movement of corporate data and applications into the cloud; this includes SharePoint. Where does WAN optimization fit into this strategy and why is it just as important to include it in planning for a SharePoint environment outside the corporate firewall? Easy, the business problem does not change with the movement of storage and applications to the cloud. Fundamentally, large files are still stored in a database and need to be delivered and opened by eager business users (everywhere). This means that WAN optimization is still just as important. A hosted environment needs to be able to deliver content to a global workforce quickly and this means having the same infrastructure and design considerations implemented in advance of usage. Moving to the cloud may ease the burden on internal IT resources but it does not contain the magic to make the implementation issues disappear. Delivering on the vision from a technical perspective Step 1 Design & Preparation Figure 1.0 shows a typical SharePoint farm configuration for an organization of moderate size (greater than 500 employees). It includes two front end servers (responsible for page rendering) that are load balanced, an application server dedicated to search and content crawling, and two database servers clustered for robust storage and high availability. This 4

5 configuration works well for organizations where most or all employees are geographically close (assuming that proper server specifications have been used per Microsoft s recommendations). This model can be simplified (i.e. single front end with single SQL Server database server) if an organization is willing to take on higher risk associated with disaster recovery. More importantly, it can be become more complex, with additional servers, should the number of users, the amount of content, or the importance of the content increase. Figure Typical SharePoint farm configuration for an organization of moderate size The challenge with this model is that that the database is in one location and users who are geographically distant from that server will experience latency delays. This translates to slower download times. As mentioned, regional servers only become viable alternatives if the collaboration is expected to remain local (i.e. amongst users who are geographically near each other). Figure 2.0 shows a global deployment architecture that includes regional servers. Regional servers increase the number of servers that must be used and supported and offer 5

6 little relief in any latency issued reported by remote users. This environment becomes more complex to manage and typically requires additional resource time investment for upkeep. Figure 2.0 Typical server configuration for a SharePoint 2010 regional deployment In both scenarios, remote users (those are that are geographically distant from the SharePoint hub), especially those with poor network bandwidth, will experience delays in uploading and downloading large documents with SharePoint. Simply stated, it will take longer to perform basic SharePoint-based functions. There are no configuration settings within native SharePoint administration that will relive these issues. Step 2 Setting the right design for you For those organizations with a distributed workforce, a SharePoint environment that includes a WAN optimization appliance will greatly improve the user experience for remote users. In fact, any organization that manages large files will see dramatic improvements in download times. Figure 3.0 shows a typical farm configuration with the addition of a WAN optimization appliance. Note, the environment includes load balancing and database clustering as means for high availability and expedited disaster recovery. It is well primed for allowing SharePoint to contain business critical content. The WAN optimization appliance ensures that content gets to and from the repository independent of user location. 6

7 Figure 3.0 Typical server configuration for a SharePoint 2010 global deployment that includes a WAN optimization appliance The results of WAN optimization are dramatic. Figure 4.0 shows the test results of interacting with Microsoft Office documents with and without the Riverbed Steelhead appliance. This allows the infrastructure design associated with Figure 3.0 to deliver faster results and allows remote users to access data with a positive user experience. 7

8 Figure 4.0 Performance times with and without Riverbed Steelhead Step 3 Ensuring success Management of a SharePoint environment is much like other web based technology solutions. The more servers you add, the more customizations or 3 rd party components you introduce, the harder it is to maintain and support. Simple math. The implementation best practices centers around having the right infrastructure to achieve business goals while keeping it as simple and compact as possible. For SharePoint, the first step is to adhere to Microsoft recommendations on server specifications (i.e. RAM, disk space, etc.). The second is to configure the farm to support palatable downtime associated with disaster recovery scenarios. This includes implementation strategies like load balancing and clustering. The last, and often forgotten, step is to ensure that the infrastructure supports wide use and consistent user experience. This is where WAN optimization is highlighted. Remember, SharePoint does not support replication; there is no easy way to deal with latency issues with more or geographically dispersed servers. It has to come down to getting data back and forth faster. This is true even in centralized environments that have large files. Fast download times will remove hurdles around user adoption and system interaction. Organizations will always have large files and may want to store them in SharePoint. SQL Server (behind the scenes) clearly supports this. Don t let geography concerns limit file upload sizes. The SharePoint infrastructure design you choose 8

9 should always match expected and future growth and should always include accommodations for all workers and their intended use. Putting it all together Choosing a WAN optimization tool Riverbed provides the only comprehensive WAN optimization solutions to a host of problems that prevent enterprises from sharing applications and data across wide-area networks anywhere in the world. To use SharePoint as it was intended, it is essential to provide quick document check-in/check-out performance to all team members, regardless of where they are trying to connect from or their distance from the server. Riverbed Steelhead Appliances Accelerate Microsoft SharePoint 2010 Microsoft SharePoint 2010 allows users from around the globe to share documents and information in a collaborative environment. Although SharePoint provides a rich suite of team productivity tools, they do not overcome the limitations that congested pipes, long distances, and variable connections impose on overall application performance. With just one participant working from a remote location, live collaboration on shared documents can quickly become a strain on all participants, even those on the same network as the SharePoint server. Steelhead Enhanced Microsoft SharePoint 2010 Riverbed significantly optimizes Microsoft SharePoint Services to deliver LAN-like performance for remote offices by utilizing the Riverbed Optimization System (RiOS), which simultaneously addresses bandwidth constraints and the combined effects of latency and protocol inefficiencies. RiOS uses fine-grain data reduction as well as compression to perform Data Streamlining, typically reducing bandwidth utilization by 60 to 95%. Transport and Application Streamlining minimize protocol chattiness, eliminating 65 to 98% of packet round trips across the WAN. RiOS also utilizes specialized Application Streamlining for HTTP, SharePoint s underlying protocol, which enables dramatic performance improvements for team productivity using a centralized instance of Microsoft SharePoint With RiOS, distributed SharePoint servers and complex replication models are no longer necessary for accelerated performance at any office, anywhere in the world. Steelhead Mobile for Microsoft SharePoint 2010 IT managers have realized that like their mobile workers variable links, constantly changing connection locations, and network latency make it difficult to alleviate slow file operations and screen refreshes. Steelhead Mobile is built with the same RiOS software that powers the Steelhead appliance, and provides the same optimizations and benefits that dramatically improve performance and minimizes bandwidth utilization. With Steelhead Mobile client software, companies of any size can give mobile workers LAN-like access to Microsoft SharePoint Services no matter where they are in the world. Performance Improvements Test results show that Steelhead appliances dramatically accelerate operations in Microsoft SharePoint, and significantly reduce WAN bandwidth utilization. A popular SharePoint file type like PowerPoint can perform up to 44 times faster and utilize 99% less bandwidth. Applications like Word and Excel are also accelerated up to 40 times, with more than 99% reduction in bandwidth utilization. 9

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