WAN Optimization is Shifting from Strategic to Tactical

WAN optimization is rapidly moving out of the “nice to have” category and is becoming a “need to have technology”. The shift to strategic WAN optimization will raise its visibility with higher-level IT leaders and create some interesting competitive dynamics in the future.

I was reading the recent Network World article, which highlighted the improved performance of Cisco’s latest WAAS appliances (http://www.networkworld.com/reviews/2011/112111-cisco-waas-252854.html?page=2).  While the results were interesting and showed that Cisco might finally be closing the gap between itself and Riverbed, it did get me thinking about the evolution of this industry and where future competitive lines will be drawn. 

The way I think about the term “WAN optimization” is any technology that can improve the performance of applications across a WAN.  However, the term has been used almost interchangeably with acceleration.  While this is certainly a component of WAN Optimization, and a very important component, it’s not the only factor.  Below are the key optimization technologies that need to come together to solve all of an enterprises application woes, not just a handful of them.  

  • Compression and acceleration.  As stated earlier, this is the most common form of WAN optimization and is used to optimize the performance of non-real time applications such as e-mail, Windows file services and share point.  The chattiness of these applications makes them very unfriendly to WAN links.  Acceleration technology actually reduces the overall sent over the wire through the use of compression, TCP acceleration and data reduction.
  • Quality of service (QoS).  QoS or bandwidth shaping improves the performance of real time applications such as VoIP and video conferencing.  The technology works by prioritizing traffic deemed as more important above other types of traffic and then reserving a predetermined amount of bandwidth for that traffic.
  • Enterprise Content Delivery.  This optimization technology can be used to optimize Web traffic, streaming media, recorded videos or any other traffic with repetitive content.  Multiple workers in the same branch office, accessing the same content over the WAN can cripple that network connection.  Content delivery or caching technology places a local replica of the content in the branch obviating the need to fetch content over the WAN.
  • Security and web filtering.  Although not often thought of as a WAN optimization technology, this can improve network performance by filtering out traffic that is out of compliance with corporate policies.  The basic concept here is filter out all bad traffic before any optimization technique is applied. 
  • Visibility tools.  In order to optimize the performance of a network, the network manager needs to first understand the network.  What traffic is running on it, how much bandwidth each application is running, etc?  Many network managers I’ve interviewed really don’t know their network all that well making any kind of WAN optimization deployment a reactionary one to solve a specific application problem.  Strong visibility tools will allow the IT department focus their efforts. 

Strategic use of WAN optimization would involve an organization using a strong visibility tool to determine which applications to optimize to provide the best return on investment.  The company would then deploy a WAN optimization platform that could optimize all the applications that needed it today but also optimize future application without IT having to deploy a bunch of new tools. 

The coming together of all of these technologies sets up an interesting competitive environment in this market.  Riverbed is the clear market leader in terms of revenue, share or any other meaningful metric and the company has made a number of acquisitions, product enhancements and partnerships to expand into areas outside of its core acceleration business.  Riverbed’s strong incumbent position gives them a huge edge on the market but it’s not a fait accompli that it will remain that way.  To date, Riverbed has shown no chinks in its armor but the market is becoming broader and more competitive.      

Based on the results in the NWW article, it appears that Cisco has closed the competitive gap with its latest WAVE appliances.  Cisco has some other interesting products such as its ECDS (enterprise content delivery system), router based QoS and performance routing (PfR) protocols.  Bringing these technologies under a single WAN optimization strategy would create a unique go to market approach for Cisco. 

Blue Coat also has an opportunity to establish itself as a stronger player in WAN optimization.  Although considered more of a security vendor today, it has a strong caching product, great visibility and QoS tools from its Packeteer acquisition and an adequate acceleration product.  Execution from sales and marketing now needs to be the focus for Blue Coat.  

The shift to strategic WAN optimization should create a "rising tide" that lifts all of these boats so it will be interesting to see how the vendors shift their strategies to capture as much of this tide as possible.

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Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.