Although conventional wisdom states that technology changes at warp speed, in actuality new technologies typically go through several iterations before they finally have their anticipated impact. But when the right technology finally matures, it can deliver both expected and unexpected benefits, as seems to be the case now with Wide Area File Services (WAFS). By optimizing connectivity to remote offices via a WAN, WAFS solutions enable companies to centralize storage. Through a combination of techniques including caching, protocol optimization, and compression of data as it's sent across the wire, WAFS overcomes the bandwidth and latency problems associated with Common Internet File System (CIFS) and NFS and that slow down transmission of data over a WAN.

When a handful of pioneering WAFS vendors such as Actona Technologies, Riverbed Technology, and Tacit Networks received significant venture capital infusions in 2004, they were entering a landscape littered with companies that had previously failed in their attempts to market WAFS technology. But the need for WAFS still made a compelling story. According to the US Census Bureau, 17,000 companies that employ at least 500 employees have more than 1 million offices. The Taneja Group estimates approximately 120,000 "distributed" enterprises--or companies that operate in more than one location--support as many as 4 million remote offices. Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG) analysts estimate that as much as 60 to 70 percent of all mission critical data is used and stored offsite.

In many cases, remote offices can be a storage administrator's worst nightmare. Central administrators must rely on local personnel to perform backup operations as well as to archive data and take it offsite. Frequently, employees in smaller offices don't adequately perform those tasks.

Old WAFS technology depended on IP networks and dedicated connections to consolidate data. The new generation of WAFS technology, however, uses a centralized server model that sends data to a central server in a single location, delivering high performance. According to Taneja Group analysts, applications perform almost as fast over WAFS connections as they do over LANs. WAFS also integrates encryption and other key security features, such as transparent and user authorization. This technology is compelling enough that over the last two years, major vendors such as HP, Cisco Systems, EMC, and Brocade have begun to partner with WAFS vendors.

Sometimes anecdotal evidence is the best indicator that a technology is starting to get traction. Such evidence suggests that at this point, WAFS may be able to deliver both anticipated and unanticipated benefits. For example, Accretive Solutions, headquartered in Hauppauge, New York, with offices around the country, has about 30 servers that support its database, email, and file systems. The remote offices are connected through what Jeff Prevet, network manager, describes as an entry-level SAN from HP. According to Prevet, in the past, each local office had its own server and was responsible for backing up its own data.

Not long ago, Accretive opted for Availl's WAFS and continuous data protection (CDP) solution. Now, as files are changed in remote offices, they're automatically backed up on the Availl server at headquarters, which is responsible for creating tape backups for archiving and shipping them offsite. A second copy of the data resides in the company's Santa Clara, California, office for disaster recovery purposes.

The implementation has some anticipated benefits, such as radically reducing backup service level agreements (SLAs), enabling the company to simplify management, and improving conformance to business continuity best practices. There have been unanticipated benefits as well. The cost of integrating new offices into the corporate network has dropped from $15,000 to $5000 because the company can use commodity servers and no longer must invest in tape drives and storage management software. And through WAFS, Prevet hopes to eventually set up self-service file recovery. "Now, remote users have to contact the Help desk for file restores," he said.

This kind of story should drive the WAFS market, which Taneja Group believes will grow by as much as 150 to 200 percent in 2006. Gartner, which places WAFS within a larger category called WAN optimization, believes WAFS sales will grow 70 percent this year to $1.19 billion. Indeed, WAFS looks like a technology that's coming of age.