Remote office is now a major IT concern: Is Zero Branch IT the solution?

The lifeblood of many companies today depends on branch offices. Whether these are remote sites, retail outlets or manufacturing plants, they must be agile and able to quickly respond to the business’s ever-changing needs. But too often, branch offices operate as independent data centres which are difficult to support and protect. Consequently, services outages and data loss are a common occurrence, leading to productivity issues including missed sales opportunities, customer churn, assembly-line stoppage and ultimately, lost revenues.

How can businesses efficiently address their branch office needs? The solution is to take a completely new approach to branch office IT which will improve system performance and resiliency, ensure reliable data backups, and greatly reduce operating expenses, particularly as more companies adopt a hybrid enterprise IT infrastructure that combines on-premises and cloud or SaaS-based applications and services. By implementing a 'Zero Branch IT' model, businesses will no longer install new equipment and assign additional on-site support at each location. Instead, they will centralise data without compromising performance, while enabling instant provisioning of new applications and services at remove locations and branches, as well as making instant recovery of applications and services a reality.

The challenges of outdated branch IT

A recent Riverbed report found that that 50 per cent of corporate data is stored in branch offices and that branch offices represent 50 per cent of an average company’s total IT budget. This creates an insecure and complex network of distributed servers and storage deployed solely to meet local performance and reliability needs.

In other words, half of today’s IT organisations are using outdated methods of operation, forcing branches to subsist on decentralised, ad hoc, and rigid legacy infrastructures. In addition to being costly and complex to manage, outdated infrastructures limit IT’s ability to proactively respond to businesses’ ever-changing needs, prevent security breaches, and recover from unplanned outages.

How Zero Branch IT supports wider business goals

Though CIOs are expected to play a central role in driving business objectives, few organisations take into account the IT challenges involved in rolling out new services across all branch locations, such as WAN constrictions, security concerns, and minimal staff. Disorganised, legacy branch infrastructures are costly to both the business and to the IT department, making even the smallest propositions a worrisome task- and making it harder for the CIO to support the business.

As an alternative, CIOs can implement a Zero Branch IT model which will address the needs of the IT department as well as those of the organisation as a whole. To better understand this new model, IT can imagine the branch as a smartphone – a simple device, fully equipped with applications and high-speed access to data over the cellular network or the Internet. When buying a smartphone, mobile providers just provide the device itself, not a rucksack full of application servers, storage, and backup infrastructure users must also carry and maintain.

Branch offices and other remote sites can operate in a similar way. Taking a new approach to branch IT enables the CIO to manage everything inside a secure, central data centre and deliver performance out to the branches. The result will be an almost non-existent IT infrastructure footprint with no remote servers, storage racks or backup and recovery systems.

The benefits of optimising the network

Gartner describes the average WAN optimisation system as a deployment of appliances at the central data centre and in each branch office, though an additional option is to deploy appliances as virtual machines or as a cloud resident service. For mobile or remote users, WAN optimisation can be deployed as a soft client that runs on individual user devices.

As wide area networks (WANs) are notoriously unreliable and do not offer protection against the creation of localised pockets of systems and information stores, Zero Branch IT requires tools that enable the convergence of IT systems and applications with WAN optimisation technologies. This will offer local LAN performance, bringing data back to the data centre, while maintaining application performance at all branch offices.

The most recent Gartner Magic Quadrant for WAN Optimization report conveys that WAN optimisation technologies can provide a range of features that improve application performance running across the entire WAN, and reduce the overall cost of the WAN. Gartner describes the typical WAN optimisation setup as a deployment of appliances at the central data centre and in each branch office. Another option is to deploy the appliances as virtual machines or as a cloud resident service. For mobile or remote users, WAN optimisation can be deployed as a soft client that runs on individual user devices.

Businesses can cut their branch IT costs by eliminating the need to purchase, maintain and protect servers, storage and backup systems in branch offices. Additionally, by using a centralised infrastructure managed via a single console or dashboard, IT can achieve greater visibility and control over the network, so as to quickly and easily redeploy, upgrade, move, or migrate systems, applications and services to accommodate the opening of new branch offices.

Using new technologies, IT can store and protect sensitive data in a centralised, strictly controlled location, with stringent backup and replication policies. Using specialised applications, businesses can easily access that information in an agile way. They can therefore deploy new services, applications, or entirely new branch sites while ensuring maximum productivity of branch staff.

New tools also enable real-time continuous data capture and analysis so that companies can view network delays, providing speed, insight and control no matter where data is stored. As a result, businesses will experience far fewer instances of system outages, slow application performance and downtime, making it easier for employees to work anyplace, anytime, using an ever-increasing selection of work-issued and personal computing devices, including laptops, smartphones and tablets.

By taking a new approach to branch IT, businesses can bring disparate systems and applications to the data centre manned by the full-time IT team, driving tangible economic benefits, including efficiencies of scale, improved employee productivity and the ability for all remote offices to share expensive backend solutions. A Zero Branch IT approach enables today’s organisations to leverage IT strategies such as branch converged infrastructure, storage delivery, virtualisation and WAN optimisation to address the unique needs of branch offices, all while delivering better business performance overall.

Paul Griffiths, Technical Director, Advanced Technology Group, Riverbed Technology