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Riverbed's next great hope for redemption

The WAN optimization leader recently presented its platform for "location-independent computing."

As an industry analyst, I get briefed on many, many new products, most of which are positioned to me as "transformative" and "game-changing." The majority of the products, though, are frankly pretty lame, and the startup fades away after just a few years. However, every once in a while a vendor comes along with a product that makes me sit up and take notice because it solves a significant problem and creates a whole new market.

This was the case with Riverbed. Way in back in 2002, I remember Riverbed executive Eric Wolford (who recently left) came to see me at Yankee Group with PR person Kim Kapustka to show me a new product that can optimize WAN links. Going into the meeting, I was somewhat skeptical and was expecting something akin to another QoS device, for which there were many already on the market. Instead, Eric walked me through how the company actually accelerated the traffic and gave LAN-like performance to WAN-based applications, such as Windows and email. Riverbed created the WAN optimization market, and the company and market took off like a rocket. Before one of you out there posts a comment that states someone like Actona actually created the market because they were first, which might be true, Riverbed was the biggest, loudest vendor in the space and now stands as the market leader in the WAN optimization market.

Recently, though, the WAN optimization market has matured and Riverbed’s growth has slowed down. Despite a number of acquisitions, the company has been unable to become a "platform" vendor and, in many ways, is a victim of its own success. The reason I say this is that the company was so successful as a WAN Optimization vendor that it’s had troubles creating an association with any other market.

Ideally any vendor would want to be associated with a broad market category with several products, allowing for more of a "platform" sale. Consider Cisco; most people know it as a “networking” platform vendor, not just a router/switch vendor so customers consider Cisco for all of their networking needs. Riverbed bas been trying to become a broader company by adding application delivery controllers and performance management tools, but there’s no single market category that includes these various technologies. Because of this, Riverbed has remained more a "collection of things," versus a platform vendor.

This week, Riverbed held a financial analyst conference and articulated the vision of the Riverbed platform. At the event, Riverbed management highlighted that the company would be moving away from being a niche WAN optimization provider and would now be providing "location-independent computing" solutions. The point being that Riverbed would enable its customers to deploy computing solutions that can exist anywhere: branch office, data center, public cloud, private cloud and every type of hybrid variance.

The components of Riverbed’s location-independent computing solution are:

  • WAN Optimization. Riverbed is still the WAN optimization leader and its Steelhead product is still the class of the market. Recently, the company has added a Path Selection feature, which can send different applications down different network paths to optimize performance. Riverbed has many variations of Steelhead to address private and public cloud as well as virtual deployments.
  • Branch consolidation. Some think of Riverbed’s Granite product as being a next-generation WAN optimization solution. While that’s part of it, the product is so much more. Because of its ability to optimize block-level storage, organizations can remove all applications that reside in a branch and migrate them to the data center, but still give workers that LAN-like performance that they have become accustomed to.
  • Network and application performance management. The company recently acquired OPNET to complement its Cascade network management products. OPNET is among the best application performance management tools and along with Cascade, can give network managers a true view of "user experience." I've always said you can’t manage what you can’t see, and the combined APM/NPM suite creates visibility from the network stack up through the application tier.
  • Application delivery controllers (ADC). While Riverbed’s Stingray product is still a minority share player in a market dominated by F5 and Citrix, the flexibility of Stingray’s virtual form factor allows the company to bundle it into larger solutions and allows customers to try the product with little up-front cost.

The concept of "location-independent computing" is sound. The trends towards mobile, cloud and virtual computing almost dictate by definition that computing will become location independent. The challenge for Riverbed is that most companies don’t have a budget item for location-independent computing, nor do they have a single IT group responsible for it.

However, with that being said I still think there’s a need for organizations to focus on making computing flexible and much more agile than it is today. To me, the key to Riverbed’s ability to capitalize on this opportunity lies with the management software. The APM/NPM can create a “lens” into the network to help organizations understand what prevents them from making computing location independent. The other Riverbed products can then be brought in to solve the issues that OPNET/Cascade reveal.

Riverbed now appears to have all the products it needs to solve the problem of location-independent computing. The next step is executing on the vision the company laid out this week.

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