What makes a WAN optimization controller?

* Need to increase application performance over the WAN? Choosing a vendor is a key first step

Choosing a vendor can be the most challenging part of a WAN optimization project, given the wide range of vendors, features and technology options available today. Enterprises in the market for WAN optimization controllers (WOC) may find a new report from Gartner can help distinguish among the offerings available from leading players.

Gartner’s magic quadrant for WAN optimization controllers was written by analysts Andy Rolfe and Joe Skorupa. In it the analysts rate vendors according to the completeness of their technology vision and their ability to execute on that vision, reserving the “leaders” quadrant of the matrix for those WOC vendors that excel in both categories.

WOCs typically are dedicated devices, deployed on either end of a WAN link to improve application response times, according to the research firm. WOC technologies generally work to prevent network latency using protocol optimization techniques; reduce data traveling over the WAN via compression or caching; and prioritize traffic streams according to business needs.

But the similarities end there. In a market as innovative and dynamic as the WAN optimization arena, players have chosen to focus on specific areas to distinguish their offerings. According to Gartner, some of the features buyers can find in WOC product sets today include:

* Application-specific acceleration features for TCP, HTTP and Microsoft Common Internet File System (CIFS) file access.

* Enterprise content delivery network (CDN) features that pre-position content in the cache to speed the delivery of live and on-demand streaming media content.

* Client software designed to speed application delivery to remote PCs.

* Bundled DHCP, DNS, Active Directory and print server features to appeal to enterprises seeking an “all-in-one” branch-office appliance.

* Ability to monitor and enforce application-specific service-level agreements

* Security capabilities such as SSL optimization and encrypted tunnels between WOCs and encrypted discs.

* Integration of router features into WOC equipment, such as policy-based routing and route selection.

The variety of features available can make vendor selection difficult, the research firm warns. Before choosing a vendor, “ensure you understand the applications and services running on your network, and the protocols they use,” the Gartner report reads. “Also conduct a detailed analysis of your network traffic to identify specific problems — for example, excessive latency, bandwidth oversubscription or lack of prioritization for certain types of traffic. Finally, insist on a real-life trial before committing to any purchase.”

Also, don’t think too long term, the firm warns. Looking ahead, Gartner expects that the growing popularity of managed WAN optimization services and the trend to bundle WOC features into other network gear, such as routers, may change the market:

“Our advice on stand-alone WOC equipment selection should therefore be considered in light of these anticipated changes in the market, and we recommend that selection is made on the basis of relatively short payback times (typically less than three years) and on current and near-term product capabilities,” the report reads.

Among the WOC vendors Gartner studied, four placed in its leaders quadrant: Riverbed Technology, Juniper Networks, Blue Coat Systems and Expand Networks. In the next newsletter I’ll share some of Gartner’s analysis about what each of these and other leading WOC vendors have to offer.

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