The need for a dedicated physical appliance to handle WAN optimization tasks, in many cases, is a thing of the past, according to experts who participated in a panel discussion Tuesday at Interop in Las Vegas.
That said, however, the market for such devices doesn't appear to be drying up anytime soon.
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"We don't have any use cases where we found that you absolutely need to have a physical appliance," said Certeon CTO and Vice President of Engineering Donato Buccella. "There isn't a single place where we would say, 'Oh, this cannot be done with software.'"
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Of course, that's dependent on the presence of a modern virtualization solution, he added. And there are a number of other factors that make the question of hardware's obsolescence in the WAN optimization sector a lot more complicated, noted Riverbed Chief Scientist Mark Day.
For the branch office -- which may or may not have technically savvy staffers on-site -- the relative simplicity of a physical appliance is still highly attractive.
"You have something that you can take out of the box and have big labels on it that say 'plug this in here,' and you get up and running," he said. Compliance issues, institutional culture and other extenuating circumstances also contribute to the continued need for WAN optimization appliances in a physical form.
On the other hand, as Buccella pointed out, simply making the argument that hardware represents an easier deployment proposition than software is problematic in certain respects -- while physical devices have to be shipped somewhere, purely software-based WAN optimization can just be downloaded and installed on an existing machine or VM.
What's more, the issues of convenience highlighted by Day cut both ways, according to Buccella. Sending a physical appliance to China or India, for example, could be a much bigger hassle than implementing such a system remotely.
Day conceded that "the trend here is very much in favor of the value being in software." However, he added, this fact on its own doesn't mean that hardware is going away.
"There are people that get value out of [physical appliances] and I don't think there's any reason to stop selling them," he said. Moreover, those physical appliances have another key advantage -- what you see is what you get.
"As soon as you get into software-land, you wind up with these asterisks. And the asterisks say things like 'assuming that you've got something that is at least as good as what we told you to get, and assuming you aren't doing something stupid with it ...' There's a lot of conditionals in there," Day said.
In the end, of course, the dominant model going forward will be the one that customers are most comfortable with. Those most familiar with the advantages and disadvantages of the hardware and software models will be the ones best-equipped to make the right choice.