Building Business With Bandwidth Boosters

Every business is scrutinizing expenditures, looking to maximize the return on every dime. An obvious pitch for telecom sales agents in this environment is telecom expense management, but it’s not the only one. Bandwidth optimization, for example, can optimize use of existing WAN assets, with the cost-conscious impact of staving off additional investments.

There are many techniques that fall under the general umbrella of bandwidth optimization (see Bandwith Optimization Basics). Among those are bandwidth management, load balancing and link bonding — all of which are designed to maximize available capacity and ensure high application and communications performance across the WAN.

Bandwidth Management

Just as TEM is based is based on an initial audit of Just as TEM is based on an initial audit of telecom assets and rates, bandwidth management is based on an audit of bandwidth usage, helping users understand how bandwidth is allocated — or most likely misallocated — across their company.

“Customers are feeling bandwidth-constrained. Most people just throw bandwidth at it. This is a smarter way to attack it,” said Jeremy Kerth, owner and managing partner for telecom agency Wired Networks in Kerrville, Texas. Wired Networks recently began selling the Titan bandwidth management service introduced in August 2008 by TMC Communications Inc. So far, Kerth has sold three customers — each of which was concerned about network congestion. “They wanted to get their arms around what was going on in their networks,” he said.

TMC deploys a Streamcore Inc. appliance at the customer premises to not only monitor the traffic but to control it by applying techniques such as traffic shaping and QoS to prioritize traffic. Titan “smooths out” the traffic flow and “keeps you from adding another circuit,” said Sarah Graham Linares, vice president of revenue assurance and product development at TMC.

For Kerth’s clients Titan was a welcome alternative to adding circuits. “It’s a very small percentage on the total spend of a circuit,” Kerth noted.

Because it’s offered as a managed service, Titan is an operating expense instead of a capital expense, which also can be attractive to customers who are not only bandwidth-constrained, but budget constrained.

Titan costs as low as $75 per location per month for 4MB, but most TMC customers are choosing a higher service level at $175 per location per month, said Graham Linares. She said the service is sold in three levels: The first delivers visibility into the network traffic with weekly reports. The second adds real-time reporting via a Web portal. The third adds traffic control.

Kerth added remediation as another level for his customers. So, when Titan issues alarms for Wired Network’s clients, a third-party vendor responds and works to resolve the issues.

As a bonus, the Titan bandwidth monitoring service combined with the remediation is helping Kerth with account management. “It takes a lot of the management headaches off my plate,” he said. “Customers come to you unless you’ve trained them another way. That’s the most challenging part of the business — dealing with trouble issues.”

Kerth is optimistic about the prospects for the Titan service to drive sales as a door-opener, but he admits he’s still learning the nuances of selling the service. Graham Linares agrees, noting early successes have been with data-savvy agents. “We are talking to IT manager, not telecom managers. …It’s a different kind of speak, so it’s useful to have an IT guy on the phone,” she said, noting TMC’s experts are available to help agents who are less inclined.

Once sold, installation of the Streamcore device takes 30 minutes or less. There are no truck rolls; the CPE device can be drop shipped to the customer site and hooked up by the customer with minimal instruction. “If you can hook up a switch or a router, you can do it,” said Alan Nafziger, TMC’s IT director.

Agents earn a commission on the MRC customers pay for Titan. But for Kerth, the money isn’t the draw. “It positions us within the customer and provides value,” he said.

TMC is positioning Titan as both a door-opener and an upsell. Any business using MPLS, Internet bandwidth, private lines or other data network can benefit from bandwidth management, the company claims in its marketing materials. The carrier-neutral offer also reinforces a consultative selling approach by advocating network assessment to determine bandwidth needs. It also improves upon and consolidates reporting customers might be getting separately from their network devices while adding elements of control.

And, it allows agents to provide consolidated network monitoring and reporting for customers that use multiple underlying carriers for redundancy.

Load Balancing

Businesses typically have multiple connections to the Internet and, as noted, often these are from diverse carriers in support of business continuity/disaster recovery goals. If they don’t, certainly agents are keen to outfit them appropriately.

Capacity in a so-called multi-WAN environment can be maximized using link aggregation techniques, such as load balancing.

Load balancing typically is enabled by an appliance deployed at the customer premises. There are many vendors of load balancing gear, such as Xroads Networks Inc. and Astrocom Corp. Increasingly, there also are managed services offerings, such as ZeroOutages from Xroads Networks. Both the gear and the service options are available to indirect sales partners; the former as a hardware resale play and the latter as a commissioned subscription service.

“When you are doing balancing, you are balancing individual sessions,” explained Daren French, vice president of business development for Xroads Networks, which makes the Edge family of bandwidth management devices. “So, if a session starts, an ftp session, perhaps it goes on out to provider A on one link. Even though you have two links connected, the ftp session will only go across one of those two links. Now, when someone else starts up a session, that session may go out on the other link. So, now, both links are being utilized but only one session is going across each link. The two links are not being shared for a single session.”

John Addington, director of technical services for Astrocom, said load balancing often is done by sending traffic to links round-robin-style or based on policies, e.g. sending e-mail traffic out one line and Web traffic out another. “We can do that, but we have the option of intelligent load balancing where on a per-session basis we’ll determine which line has the most available resources and send the traffic out that line,” he said, describing the capabilities of Astrocom’s PowerLink appliances.

An important consideration when choosing a supplier is whether the device supports inbound load balancing for traffic coming into a client’s Web servers, for example.

One of the byproducts of load balancing is link failover. So, if a link goes down, traffic is routed to the remaining connection(s). Again, some devices also support inbound failover.

The redundancy message is a key value proposition for load balancing solutions. ARG, a telecom sales agency based in McLean, Va., has been selling Astrocom’s PowerLink appliances as part of its disaster recovery offer since 2006. Erica Waitman, senior manager for account management at ARG, said the agency sells PowerLink along with redundant carrier network connections. She estimated about 60 percent of ARG’s customers that have an interest in disaster recovery are using the appliance. Like Wired Network’s Kerth, Waitman said the commission on the $3,000 device is not the incentive; instead it helps ARG differentiate its offer. “We are offering something the direct carriers sales reps can’t,” she added.

She also said it can promote more bandwidth sales since users of the device will order two T1s instead of one or one T1 with DSL backup.

This is a no-brainer for telephony agents, said Jason Breyer, vice president of sales for Astrocom. “They are calling on clients that are probably stuck in contracts for their single connection and they don’t even think there is anything available for redundancy. It opens up a whole new world.”

Waitman said the benefits of the load balancing device are easy to convey, but ARG reps rely on an in-house sales engineer or Astrocom for more technical questions.

ARG chose the Astrocom Powerlink because it’s relatively inexpensive compared to other similar devices on the market. Another option for the budget-conscious is a managed service. ZeroOutages starts at $99 per month and includes the appliance and 24/7 monitoring. “We deliver our ZeroOutages switch, which includes some of the same technology you’d find in our hardware appliance,” said XRoads Network’s French. “In addition to that switch, ZeroOutage connects back to our data center and gives real-time updates on how to route traffic based on Internet performance. You get a little bit more with the service than you would get buying the hardware outright.”

XRoads offers up to 30 percent margins on hardware and up to 30 percent residuals based on their partner tier. If the client is larger or prefers a hardware option, resellers with limited technical capabilities have the option of reselling XRoads Network’s professional services for installation and maintenance.

Link Bonding

Another link aggregation technique is link bonding. Some of the same devices the provide load balancing also provide link bonding. While balancing efficiently uses the available bandwidth capacity, it does so on a per-session basis. In contrast, bonding enables sharing on a per-packet basis, for a truer aggregation of the bandwidth. But there are limitations.

“Packet splitting can only be achieved if you have a like appliance at each end of the connection,” explained XRoads Network’s French. Single-sided packet splitting looks like spoofing and is shutdown by network security systems. For that reason, bonding is most often used between sites in a corporate WAN, he said. For it to be used for Internet traffic, an appliance would be required at the customer premises and the ISP’s hub. In the past ISPs have offered such a service to customers as a way to grow bandwidth incrementally instead of jumping from a T1 directly to a DS3. Even if that offer were still available, the provider of all the links would be the same, eliminating the redundancy benefit of having multiple providers.

To solve that problem, Mushroom Networks Inc. in October announced a Broadband Bonding Service combining a broadband bonding unit and a hosted service. The CPE, which is installed at the subscriber site, bonds up to six broadband connections together as a single high-speed Internet connection. The unit alone will enable downlink speeds of T1 or greater, but to get the equivalent speed on the uplink requires technology hosted by Mushroom networks. “A peering node in the network enables uplink bonding,” explained Dr. Cahit Akin, CEO of Mushroom Networks.

The Broadband Bonding Service is compatible with any broadband technology or ISP, allowing business customers to mix and match providers. Akin said users can bond two DSL lines and two cable connections at .5mbps each, or 2mbps combined at about $150 per month, including the Mushroom service. Compare that to 1.5mbps for a T1 at $400-$500 per month.

The services is available for a monthly fee of $50 excluding the cost of the CPE, including the Truffle, which supports up to 65mbps and is targeted to large enterprise users; Porcini, which supports up to 35mbps and is targeted to SMBs; and PortaBella, a new wireless solution that supports up to 25mbps.

XRoads Network’s French said there is another type of bonding called application bonding that enables certain applications — namely ftp and Web traffic — to be sent over diverse links with only one CPE device. This is accomplished through proxy connections making multiple queries, receiving the replies and reassembling them for delivery to the end user faster than via a single link. So what about other applications like e-mail for which this doesn’t work? French said those can be load balanced for a hybrid bandwidth management solution.

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