A Four Step Guide to Maximizing Microsoft SharePoint Performance Across the WAN

Remote users and branch offices have come to rely on Microsoft SharePoint 2010 for collaboration and document management. However, performance and connectivity issues have put those outside corporate headquarters at a disadvantage. What can be done to maximize performance of SharePoint across the wide area network (WAN)?

SharePoint 2010 has become one of the more important tools for sharing information across the enterprise. SharePoint’s live collaboration capabilities and document management tools have increased productivity for workgroups and ad-hoc teams across many businesses. The rapid adoption of SharePoint 2010 and the growth of SharePoint’s managed data sets are a true testament to its value. However, many organizations are discovering that as its SharePoint deployments grow and spread across multiple branch offices, performance suffers. Following these four steps will ensure SharePoint success in your organization.

STEP 1: Establish the who, what, when, where of your end users

As with any IT project, first and foremost IT professionals need to understand the various use cases for an application. SharePoint has a tendency to be adopted virally across regions and departments as end users discover the simplicity and efficiency of SharePoint. However, not all end users have the same usage patterns, access device, connectivity, or physical location. Therefore, a successful SharePoint deployment must start with a thorough understanding of end user requirements:

  • How many users does your organization expect during the next 12 months?
  • Are end users accessing from mobile devices outside of corporate headquarters or regional branch offices?
  • What types of assets are end users most likely to access or utilize? Keep an eye out for video projects or thick design files such as SolidWorks or AutoCAD, these will significantly impact your storage and bandwidth requirements.
  • Which regions are most likely to use the collaboration software?
  • How resilient and how large of the network links connecting these end users?

Step 2: Understand how SharePoint works across Wide Area Networks

Applications that run in distributed environments often suffer from performance problems because of the number of send/receive requests that must travel between an end user’s device and the physical server hosted hundreds or thousands of miles away. Some applications, such as Sharepoint, are susceptible to performance problems over the WAN because they are particularly chatty – that is, they require an unusual amount of send/receive requests for each action taken in the application. For example, a simple login and download process can require thousands of round trips across a network.

On a LAN (local area network), this chattiness is unnoticeable to an end user; however, to users access centrally stored files over a WAN, the experience can be horrible, taking minutes to complete simple tasks.

With this chattiness in mind, particularly in distributed enterprises, IT professionals must resist taking typical approaches to performance problems, such as throwing more processing power or bandwidth at the problem – with SharePoint that would mean more servers, faster storage and a significant investment in hardware or network upgrades. IT professionals often try to scale up SharePoint servers, adding SharePoint servers to branch offices and incorporating complex asynchronous data replication routines. The net result is an increase in WAN traffic, which ultimately negatively impacts overall performance.

Addressing performance problems for large, distributed SharePoint teams requires a different approach, an approach that is not driven by server processing power and increased bandwidth, but an approach that adds intelligence into the infrastructure.

However, there are other solutions to that performance problem – solutions that are ultimately less expensive to deploy, improve performance, reduce latency and harden security, all without attempting to decentralize a SharePoint presence by installing more SharePoint servers at more locations.

It all comes down to solutions that help overcome the performance problems. By incorporating these solutions, performance can be enhanced greatly, sometimes by a factor of 100 or more, thanks to a reduction of redundant requests, effective data compression, reduced latency and packet de-duplication.

One performance improving alternative is to use an enterprise content distribution network (eCDN) to optimize SharePoint performance. eCDNs place servers at the edge of corporate networks where files, content and applications can be stored close to end users in distributed locations. When properly built, eCDNs can improve Sharepoint performance significantly by ensuring that centrally stored files are accessed quickly. ECDNs may also offer the ability to pre-populate or pin files on servers at the edge. The challenge with eCDNs, however, is that they can be quite expensive to construct. Third party services are also available; however these services may not provide the flexibility or customization that enterprises may require to fully optimize SharePoint.

Another alternative is to deploy a WAN optimization solution to improve SharePoint performance. WAN optimization products significantly reduce the amount of SharePoint traffic on a network and generally deliver quick ROIs, with solutions often paying for themselves in less than 7 months based on a reduction in bandwidth costs.

STEP 3: Design a WAN Optimization Solution That’s Right for You

When designing a WAN optimization solution, the first group of users to address are mobile users who may access SharePoint from a customer location, home office, Wi-Fi hotspot, hotel VPN or any other remote location. These users prove to be a unique challenge – because of the mobility involved, it is difficult to automatically assign those users to a particular branch office or WAN entry point. Here, a solution that leverages mobile WAN optimization may prove to be best.

With mobile WAN optimization, a small client application is installed on the user’s notebook or remote PC. That client software connects via the Web to a WAN optimization appliance located in the data center or a branch office. The appliance and the client perform some handshaking and determine the fastest way to transmit data over the WAN. Normally that includes a combination of data compression, data de-duplication, algorithms to reduce chatty protocols and a measure of data caching, which eliminates unnecessary data retransmissions.

A mobile WAN optimization solution can offer major performance improvements. For example, local traffic caching can reduce the amount of synchronization traffic significantly, while improved compression reduces the size of the traffic being physically sent, from those two technologies, users can expect anywhere from a five to fifty fold increase in transmission performance, simply because SharePoint uses very “chatty” synchronization schemes which incorporate hundreds of round trips for packets. When those round trips are reduced and chatty protocols are tamed, the performance improvement is dramatic.

In some cases, it may be best to look at a distributed architecture for SharePoint, especially for businesses that have a multitude of large branch offices. In that case, WAN optimization appliances can be deployed at the edge of each branch office and the data centers. Those WAN optimization appliances can auto-discover each other and then can monitor and determine the best paths for WAN traffic. Occasionally, that may involve asynchronous relationships; otherwise, it may incorporate synchronous relationships between the sites. Ideally, multiple WAN optimization appliances will be able to automatically determine those relationships and adjust them on the fly. However, there are additional benefits offered in a multi-site, multi-appliance scenario, the first being resiliency, as wells the ability to support multiple mobile users from each branch office by pairing a mobile WAN optimization client with each appliance.

Step 4: Don’t Forget About Disaster Recovery and Business Continuity

For those looking to meet business continuity needs, WAN optimization appliances can enable SharePoint servers to become more resilient, where if one server or site fails, traffic can be rerouted to the next nearest site. High speed synchronization powered by WAN optimization keeps the data up-to-date. What’s more, multiple appliances have the ability to incorporate highly compressed links between sites and incorporate intelligent caching of information, keeping the most frequently used data packets close to local users. Advanced algorithms can also pre-fetch data, allowing local caches to provide the information before a workstation requests it from the remote site. Other advantages include increased security – appliances can encapsulate, encrypt and compress the WAN traffic between sites reducing latency and increasing throughput. SharePoint responds very well to optimization technologies, perhaps to the point where SharePoint servers may not have to be installed in the branch offices and the WAN optimization appliances handle all SharePoint traffic from the data center to the workstation and still offer LAN-like performance.

It may not always be necessary to turn to complex scale outs with servers scattered about different geographic locations to provide acceptable performance to end users, especially with SharePoint. Alternatives, such as WAN optimization can often offer the needed speed, without requiring local SharePoint resources, and ultimately, WAN optimization appliances will cost less than branch office servers, while offering to improve all WAN traffic and not just be limited to optimizing a single application or service. WAN optimization works to improve the end user experience, regardless of the user’s location. That user can expect a LAN-like experience while on the road, seated in a branch office or from a home office, thanks to WAN optimization technologies.

Riverbed were sponsors at the European SharePoint Conference 2011.

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