Riverbed stabs at Cisco’s heart with next-gen routing

CEO Jerry Kennelly details beyond-WAN-optimization strategy that broadens Riverbed’s assault on top network rivals.

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Diving into Riverbed's products

I want to use that as a jumping off point to talk about the SteelConnect product. Can you explain how that works? I want to make sure readers really understand it because I think you’re onto an interesting approach here.

SteelConnect is our SD-WAN routing product. It’s a big loop for us. I wouldn’t have said this in past years but our original core business of WAN optimization was a good business, we were best in it, we were the market leader, but it was a bit to the side of mainstream networking. You might call it a niche, a big niche but a niche. With SteelConnect [we’re] entering mainstream networking, the routing and switching business for the first time. SteelConnect is our premier entry into that market. SteelConnect uses cloud-based management and orchestration software to control the deployment of branch routers and allow them their routes at Layer 7 using application knowledge. It’s the simplest, fastest way for any large corporation that has a big network of branch routing to deploy, change and manage their entire network worldwide.

The network giants use 20-year-old technology where you have to write CLI commands to define what a router does. It can take 700 to 1,000 lines of CLI command code per router to put a router in a network, tell it what to do, which other routers to talk to, how to do its routing. If, in one of those lines of code, you either leave out a zero or add an extra zero the thing doesn’t work. If you have 1,000 branch offices and 1,000 branch routers you have to write those 700 to 1,000 lines of code 1,000 times. It can take weeks, even months to deploy or update a change on a big global network of routers.

With this [SteelConnect} technology, it’s all managed and orchestrated centrally from cloud software that sits on either AWS or Azure. With three clicks of a mouse a network manager can deploy and configure a new router anywhere in the world and/or he can change the routing rules of all 1,000 of his routers in a matter of minutes, as well as also back up and correct it in a manner of minutes. Say that he’s got 1,000 branch routers out there and tomorrow the CEO of the company wants to send a video announcing the fantastic results of the quarter and his fantastic leadership abilities. You have to reconfigure every router to give special SLA priority to this video from the CEO. In the classic world that exists today with the Layer 2 and 3 hardware routers out there, you couldn’t do that. With a software-defined wide-area network with our SteelConnect product, that’s a five-minute exercise to reconfigure all 1,000 routers worldwide. It’s a dramatic change in the way people can deploy and manage a big global network of branch routing.

In terms of what you buy from Riverbed, is it software only for your existing Cisco or other routers? Are you buying hardware for the remote office? How do you deploy that?

All of the above. We offer hardware with the software mounted on it, what is known as the appliance model, but we also offer the software-only version if you want to run it on your own hardware. We don’t really care. It turns out most people choose the hardware version because of the environment. If you look at the topology of a network, a company might have three data centers and 1,000 branches so you might sell three virtual versions, or software-only versions, for the three data centers but then sell 1,000 appliances for the big branch deployment.

I want to make sure because this is one of those hyped-up phrases these days. When you think about software-defined WAN what do you mean by that and what do you think that brings to customers?

Software-defined WAN means that it’s central management and orchestration of the routing, rules and SLAs that sit on your routers, which in our case are inspecting each packet at Layer 7 and routing by application type. Basically, it’s still a piece of hardware but it’s routing at Layer 7 based on the application type and managed from a central orchestration platform. You’re able to deploy upgrades globally from a master console without having to go to each individual router one by one.

How threatening is this to the existing router vendors?

I don’t know if threatening is the right word. This a big market opportunity because the truth is, in this new world of digital initiatives and hybrid cloud deployments where people are mixing SaaS and on-prem and Azure and AWS, the old infrastructure isn’t adequate to deal with that. It’s too cumbersome, not agile, expensive and error prone.

People have upgrade cycles where existing branch routers go through end-of-life and have to be upgraded. That’s happening probably on a third of the branch routing hardware that’s out there right now. People don’t want to replace it with 30-year-old technology. They’re looking to bring in 21st Century technology now.

+ ALSO ON NETWORK WORLD How to choose a software defined WAN (SD-WAN) +

The topic of software-defined wide-area network is a hot topic right now. It’s what every network manager, what every CIO is talking and thinking about. It’s still nascent. Once you get a demo of the product {SteelConnect} and understand the benefits, you really don’t want to go back to the old world. The challenge for the big people who have dominated routing for the last 25 years is they don’t have the new technology yet so they’re either going to have to develop it or buy it or something.

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