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Case Study: Network optimiser gets banged-up

Nevada prison looks to WAN acceleration for IT upgrade.

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Faced with extremely remote desert locations and a complete lack of network infrastructure across the stark landscape, IT workers with the Nevada Department of Corrections needed to connect 24 prison facilities around the state.

Their initial plan seemed simple: deploy a new, Web-based prison management application to all 24 prison facilities to replace a 20-year-old DOS screen application. After researching options, the IT team eventually settled on a satellite-based network combined with a key add-on -- WAN acceleration appliances from Blue Coat Systems that could drastically reduce debilitating delays in transmitting data to a satellite and then back to Earth.

The easy part was settling on the software. Called the Nevada Offender Tracking Information System (NOTIS), the Web-based application allows 3000 prison employees to manage the state's 13,000 inmates more efficiently and accurately, said Dan O'Barr, infrastructure architect for the corrections department.

NOTIS is a heavily customised application based on the TAG Offender Management System from Vancouver-based Syscon Justice Systems. In Nevada, it handles a wide range of inmate records, from calculating their sentences and release dates to tracking their security status, disciplinary records, visitor records, health records, staffing issues and parole board information.

Once the system is up and running, inmate information can be kept up to date around the clock, O'Barr said. With the old system, data could be as much as 72 hours old, a potential security issue. In at least one case, a transferred inmate was stabbed in the prison yard minutes after arriving because information that could have prevented the stabbing wasn't quickly provided. "With newer, centralised information, people will have access to updated information, which will improve security and keep such things from happening again," O'Barr said.

The hard part was cobbling together a network that allowed NOTIS to function properly. With NOTIS -- a centralised Oracle-based application that links to an Oracle database -- set to go live, officials first had to figure out how to bolster its performance over the satellite link-ups they needed to use.

With an almost one-second delay in each direction for every single element on a Web page, load times were unacceptable. Opening a Web page, "could take you minutes," said O'Barr. "With a real-time application, it would completely break it -- it will fall apart. It was essentially unusable."

The satellite system was the only workable option, but data transmission delays threw a spanner into the rollout. "They're extremely remote areas," O'Barr said of the state's prisons. "T1 has not been a possibility, regardless of money. There was no technology available to link them" until the satellite-based option matured.

In the past, only the two largest prisons, in populated Carson City and Las Vegas, were linked for direct data transfers. For the rest of the prisons, remote and harsh desert locations made them good for security, bad for linking them electronically.

A year ago, IT workers in the department began searching the Internet for answers and discovered WAN acceleration vendors including Blue Coat and F5 Networks. The Blue Coat SG appliances, which securely accelerate the delivery of corporate applications while reducing bandwidth usage, initially dropped the satellite delay to under eight seconds for each Web page, O'Barr said. While F5's products also performed well, the state went with Blue Coat because it offered more features for the money, including Web caching, acceleration and filtering to allow officials to control the on-line activities of prison employees.

The entire IT system overall cost about US$12 million, with the Blue Coat component eating up about $200,000 of that. Blue Coat provided one SG appliance in each prison facility as well as technical support.

Robert Whiteley, an analyst at Forrester Research, said WAN acceleration from vendors like Blue Coat, F5, Juniper Networks, Riverbed Technology and Cisco Systems is helping remote and branch offices to connect efficiently with distant data centres. "This whole WAN optimisation space has really been keying up lately," he said.

The Blue Coat technology also gives the Nevada prison system another option in the future -- the ability to enable acceleration for mobile devices without added expenses, he said.

"The killer in satellite networks is latency, the delay it takes to transfer data," Whiteley said. "Blue Coat accelerates it and makes it work."

Gartner analyst Joe Skorupa agreed. "There's a lot of mainstream value in what these devices do," he said, especially in linking remote offices to parent networks. Blue Coat does "a good job addressing high latency, limited bandwidth networks," which was the particular problem in Nevada. "There's a whole lot of nothing in every direction there. It becomes a real issue, and Blue Coat has a very, very feature rich device."


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