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Riverbed wins 7-vendor WAN optimization test

Challengers Ipanema and Exinda score high marks for innovation

By , Network World
November 11, 2013 06:09 AM ET

Network World - As applications move to the cloud, network managers are seeing increasing requirements to optimize and manage WAN connections. Most enterprises have migrated to web-based applications and make heavy use of Internet services for day-to-day business. All of this makes network performance a key factor for productivity and end-user satisfaction.

Vendors have responded with a bevy of devices aimed at improving network performance. Many focus on just one function, such as compression, bandwidth management or flow visibility. Our last test of network optimization products was in 2007, so we wanted to find out if things had moved forward. Could network managers improve WAN performance without buying a stack of diverse boxes for every office?

We invited every major network optimization vendor, and ended up with seven contenders:
1. Blue Coat Mach5 editions of the SG300-25 and SG900-10
2. Cisco Wide Area Virtualization Engine WAVE-7541, Cisco 4451-AX ISR and 2900-AX ISR.
3. Citrix CloudBridge 2000
4. Exinda Networks Model 6862 and 10862 running x800-series software
5. Ipanema Technologies ip|engine 1000ax and ip|engine 20ax
6. Riverbed Steelhead CXA-5050 and CXA-555
7. Silver Peak Systems VX-1000 and VX-5000. 

We put each product in the lab for an intensive round of testing in three key areas of network optimization: performance, visibility, and control. We also looked at evolving parts of the network optimization market, including application-layer controls and active data link management. Finally, we evaluated each product for its enterprise suitability, flexibility, and ease of use. 

[SLIDESHOW: Click through to see the pros and cons of each product]

Our Clear Choice Test winner is Riverbed, which excels at the core WAN optimization functions of compression and de-duplication. From a pure performance perspective, they know what they’re doing.  

However, WAN optimization has evolved to encompass other features, such as traffic management and visibility. Here, we find that Riverbed Steelhead could use some work. Traffic management is good, but not great. Visibility is limited in a way that pushes network managers to use Riverbed’s own tools, rather than opening up to the growing world of standards-based flow analysis products. And new features, such as WAN path selection, don’t live up to Steelhead’s traditional technology leadership.

If you’re looking for innovation, you’ll be as impressed, as we were, with Ipanema Technologies ip|engines and Exinda Networks x800-series. These two products offer a rounded approach to network optimization that we didn’t see in Steelhead. These vendors are clearly thinking beyond the basics to what the next generation of network optimization products should look like. As newcomers, though, we found glitches and holes in the products. For example, Exinda’s management system is weak, while Ipanema’s network integration and traffic management features are too rigid to work well with some networks.

For great performance, we were again impressed with Silver Peak, a top scorer in our 2007 test. Tied for first place in our compression and de-duplication tests, Silver Peak’s VX-series and NX-series simply makes things go faster. However, Silver Peak is having a hard time shaking their data center-to-data center heritage, and the VX-series and NX-series need updates to handle the requirements of networks with many branch offices.

Cisco’s WAAS product line is so broad that it’s difficult to know what to test, and then how to rank them. As Cisco WAAS moves from standalone devices to ISR-integrated software, we gain all the power, sound, and fury of IOS, but at a cost in complexity. If you’re happily committed to IOS on ISR devices at the edge of your branch network, adding WAAS is a no-brainer with big benefits at moderate cost. However, if you’re mixing Cisco with other vendors at the branch edge, the decision rarely weighs in favor of Cisco for network optimization.

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