Expand CTO sees WAN optimization getting smarter, more secure

Application-acceleration vendor adapting in face of challenge by Cisco, others.

WAN optimization is topping minds of enterprise IT managers as they look to centralize operations and consolidate data centers. Expand CTO Efi Gatmor recently discussed his take on the current market and how Expand will pump up its technology to meet future opportunities.

WAN optimization is topping minds of enterprise IT managers as they look to centralize operations and consolidate data centers. But by serving applications to remote offices from a central location, they also risk degrading application performance over WAN links and cutting into employee productivity.

Companies such as Expand Networks, which entered the market in 1999 and was recently recognized as a market leader by research firm Gartner, have long been touting the benefits of managing bandwidth and sending packets over wide-area links. Yet with the emergence of myriad innovative start-ups and Cisco's re-entry into the market over the past year, veterans like Expand realize they have to evolve their technology to stay ahead of the pack.

Expand CTO Efi Gatmor recently discussed with Network World Senior Editor Denise Dubie his take on the current market and how Expand will pump up its technology to meet future opportunities.

WAN optimization is a hot topic lately. Where does Expand Networks and its Compass technology and Accelerator appliances fit in today's market?

Our unique offering is still in our ability to understand not only the application level and the application process but also the network level. We can provide capabilities such as transparency, network-awareness and quality of service, which is still a must as part of an infrastructure for understanding and being application-aware. We look at the application itself and the business needs and the network infrastructure and the IT needs to see how both work together and how we can align those needs and make sure from low level to high level everything is working as smoothly as possible.

What applications or network services have emerged of late that WAN optimization vendors must address now?

We've identified data- and voice-convergence projects in enterprise organizations as a critical part of the WAN optimization process going forward. VoIP is one of the top project deployments in 2007 and 2008 for customers looking to put it in all their remote branch offices and getting rid of old PBX boxes.

Without using quality of service, optimization and other techniques, you cannot ensure that the quality of voice and multimedia applications will be preserved. At the same time, you need to also be able to provide all the benefits for the data applications. Without tackling all those requirements, users will fail in deploying VoIP in 2007.

The requirement here for us is to use advanced features and capabilities of joining voice and data together, but also optimizing the performance of both and reducing costs. End users don't always understand how challenging it is to maintain the quality of voice, while also maintaining the bandwidth for business-critical applications. VoIP optimization is something that we actually will enhance even more.

Gartner and others have identified the need for WAN optimization and application-acceleration vendors to add client-side software to their product suites -- to enable mobile and teleworkers to tap the benefits of such technologies. Where is Expand on that front?

We have identified the three places where we need to participate when it comes to optimizing applications over the WAN. They are the performance of servers in the data center -- what research groups call application delivery -- WAN optimization itself and also client WAN optimization. All of those large consolidated data centers require application delivery as part of performance of the application. And they need WAN optimization for many remote branches. But now that you have an increasing number of road warriors, telecommuters and mobile users, customers require a client-based solution to hook into the same environments. We are planning to introduce client technology as part of the roadmap for 2007. It will not be complete in Compass on Day 1, but gradually we plan to add more capabilities to that and make it part of Compass, integrated with our centralized management and also with our servers in the data center.

What other trends have you noticed among your enterprise customers?

One of them, which is quite obvious, is the consolidation of servers in the data center. But it also includes virtualization and server-based computing with solutions like Citrix that enable end users to access and to use applications from a central point. Another growing trend is Web applications, which could be ERP applications or other business-oriented applications, that are being used with a Web interface in an organization.

And then there is even the new kid on the block, which is application streaming, providing similar capabilities, only from using a thin server and a fat client again. All of those are being backed by another fact: The amount of remote end users who try to access this information and use those applications is becoming larger and larger as we move forward. Because of globalization, merger-and-acquisition at large companies, the need to work from home and the road, what we see is that 80% to 90% of the users are trying to access data that is being centralized more.

How have such trends influenced your product design and delivery?

The idea is to continue to enhance our Compass, our multiservice solution that provides on a single box a set of services that take care of all those pains. By really focusing on the vast range of issues -- starting from the networking layer (Layer 2 and 3) and ending at Layer 7 (the application layer) -- we believe we can provide a solution that will ensure on one hand the satisfaction and productivity of the end user and on the other hand make sure the business objective will be taken care of. This is where we believe as a company our solution can really be deployed and used.

Vendors often argue over where acceleration technologies should live -- in the network or with the application. What is Expand's take?

The network infrastructure itself especially when you move to modern networks such as MPLS is really an organic part of the application. In most cases, those customers get some provided services from a telco, An MPLS network customer also gets visibility, quality of service, traffic engineering, redundancy and many other capabilities from that network.

The question of maintaining the application SLA over that network is not only a question of how we look at the application from the edge, in the remote office and the data center, but also how can we allow it to continue to perform well and utilize the infrastructure in the WAN itself. You can't really look at just the application itself. You need to understand how to tunnel the traffic and how to make sure that all those services are still maintained and the SLA for applications and protocols are kept intact. We plan in 2007 to provide more tools to the customers for Layer 7 visibility and classification, to help them be aware of applications and make sure performance of applications is maintained at remote edges but also in the WAN itself.

With the move to data-center consolidation, enterprise IT managers risk branch-office network overload. How do you help customers get the capabilities they need without requiring them to install too many devices in each office?

Our solution relies on a single box that offers multiple services. It has the ability to be as complex and sophisticated as you’d like when it comes to the network layer. I don't see customers ever being willing to deploy or install several boxes at the remote branch. So when it comes to WAN optimization, only a complete solution that starts from quality of service and goes through compression and caching solutions and continues with plug-ins for specific applications and ends with security capabilities will enable the remote branch to cope with challenges when data center centralization or consolidation is implemented. But with these multiservice boxes, it is to have the ability to manage everything from a centralized platform in the data center. In order to simplify, centralized management is a must.

Expand consolidates many functions onto one device, tapping management software from a central console, but what functions does it not make sense to load into a single appliance for the branch office?

That is a philosophical question. We will see eventually in the remote branch two or three devices -- one of which will be a WAN-optimization device, the second one will be some sort of a routing device, and the third might be a switch, but not necessarily. In some cases, all of those three can be one. But because of performance and security issues, customers will continue to have two or three devices.

In some cases, we may put the solutions in specific blades on a single hardware platform, which is very possible. These boxes are easier to use and deploy, and they don't require people at the location to have to configure them. I hear from our customers that one box that has everything is something they'd like to have. It makes sense to see that kind of consolidation in our market as we move forward, but it will take some time.

Considering today's market, what is the next technology to logically add to optimization and acceleration devices?

The next consolidation point, which makes a lot of sense especially for the remote branch, is adding security capabilities to the WAN-optimization devices. It makes a lot of sense to look at firewalls, IPS, IDS, antivirus and spyware, as part of the solution, especially when you have a split tunnel in the remote branch and some of the traffic is going directly to the Internet.

How will security be integrated into optimization devices and acceleration technologies?

The current challenges when it comes to resources in the device itself are large enough that we will see three types of solutions in 2007 and 2008. The first one will be separate boxes for WAN-optimization and security functionalities, the next will be an integrated box, and also you'll see environments where you have a box for WAN optimization and then also client solutions for security in your laptop. I see those two areas converging in the coming three or four years.

Will security be the technology that separates the market leaders from the pack, or will it be something else?

The players that have the right infrastructure that will be the ones still standing in the end. When I say infrastructure I mean the ability to react fairly quickly and provide the right plug-ins for the next generation of protocols or applications that require WAN optimization or application acceleration.

You will succeed in this market if you have the right infrastructure, if you are modular enough, if you have something that takes care of bandwidth pain and latency issues, if you have something that will take care of the question of transparency in the networking infrastructure, if you have something that will enable you to identify new applications and add them as you move forward. You need the ability to provide in a short time the right plug-ins that will make sure the next generation of applications will be taken care of. At that point, it will be a technical issue not an innovation issue. The innovation in the coming two years or so will be in the infrastructure side more than the specific application.

I have talked to analysts who say the entire market will change in the next three years, but that enterprise IT managers should still invest today to address acute pain points. How do you think your technology will stack up in the next few years, considering Gartner identified Expand as a leader in today's market?

There are several places we must be aware of the changes and new requirements coming from the enterprise, especially places where you see giants like SAP, Oracle and Microsoft adding more and more capabilities to their products. It's understanding that Web protocols are here to stay and that we actually need to take into account quite a few changes and emerging protocols being deployed.

The fact is that the closer the applications are getting to the client and the more secure they've become, the process of optimizing them has become more delicate or interesting for vendors or players like us because it means you need to intimately understand what is going on in the application and protocol level in order to be part of HTTPS traffic and authentication schemas in Microsoft, for example. The amount of integration there will be quite unique and it will be part of the plug-ins in the infrastructure.

Do you see across-the-board changes to customer pain points going forward, and if so, how do you plan to keep up with their needs?

Some of the challenges will remain the same. Expand started in 1999, and we believed bandwidth and reducing the bandwidth was the only issue and nothing else mattered. If you can reduce the bandwidth, you can provide ROI to the customer and ensure the application will run better and faster. We now understand that of course this is only part of the equation. We need to take care of latency. We need to address network quality. We need to take into account the topology of the network. Those issues will remain relevant, but we will have a few more.

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