In Depth: Cisco, Microsoft, And Others Heat Up WAN Optimization Market - InformationWeek

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In Depth: Cisco, Microsoft, And Others Heat Up WAN Optimization Market

The market is booming thanks to the bandwidth crunch of apps like VoIP and video, the growth of far-flung employees, and companies' dependence on their networks.

Ben Weinberger had all the right intentions last year when he consolidated law firm Ruden McClosky's servers to a central data center to save money. But that strained the firm's wide area network. Latency shot up fivefold, branch-office employees started getting timed out from Outlook, and videoconferencing quality degraded. It didn't exactly make him a hero. "The people out there would have lynched me if I didn't show up and do something," Weinberger says.

Experiences like this are why WAN optimization has bolted up the IT priority list, and why we're seeing a flurry of vendor activity. Weinberger's decision came down to buying more bandwidth or buying WAN optimization controllers, devices that typically sit at both ends of a WAN link and are designed to increase effective throughput and decrease network lag time. He bought 10 of Riverbed Technology's Steelhead optimization appliances and got latency back to where it had been.

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Cisco Systems plans in the coming days to introduce a line of WAN optimization products that integrate with the rest of its networking offerings through its router and switch operating system. Cisco already has an application delivery controller device and a lower-functionality WAN controller, but the new line will make it more competitive with the likes of Riverbed and market leader Packeteer, Cisco VP George Kurian says. Cisco's expected to include most of the features found in market-leading boxes, such as compression, caching, and protocol optimization. The products will be integrated with Cisco's operating system to shorten integration time and leverage visibility into the network and will be part of a line that also includes Cisco's application delivery device and an older WAN optimization product. Juniper Networks, which acquired Redline and Peribit last year, also plans new WAN optimization products in the next few months with improved scalability, reporting, and visibility, and that work with more applications.

In the last two weeks, Riverbed and Blue Coat Systems released new software and appliances designed to make customer WANs even faster, and Citrix Systems and Microsoft announced they'll co-develop Citrix's WANScaler line, acquired earlier this month from Orbital Data, to run on Windows Server by the second half of next year.

WAN Optimization, pie chartThe third generation of Riverbed's RiOS software adds the ability to speed up the type of client-server interactions commonly used in Unix systems and Novell networks; adds new techniques to speed up Windows file transfers and Microsoft Exchange traffic; lets users prioritize certain types of traffic; and improves management and monitoring. Riverbed also introduced three scalable devices aimed at large branch offices and data centers.

Blue Coat, in a more limited release, announced appliances the company says increase effective throughput two to three times its existing models because of faster processors and increased memory. The vendor also introduced an add-in card that accelerates Secure Sockets Layer processing and traffic.

Careers On The Line
Gartner predicts the WAN optimization market will explode in the next few years, from $475 million last year to $1.5 billion by 2008. WAN links are getting more crowded and less trustworthy for many reasons: data and server consolidation; rising remote backup demands; use of Web-based apps, VoIP, and videoconferencing; more employees working on the road and from home offices.

WAN optimization is one piece of what's broadly defined as the application acceleration market--software and devices that speed up the network so that companies don't have to buy more of what Packeteer CEO Dave Côté calls "brute-force bandwidth." Half of the market is application delivery, focused on techniques in the data center to move data faster and more efficiently and led by F5 Networks. The other half is WAN optimization, focusing on how that data's moving on the wide area network (see chart, above).

Rotten WAN performance can be a career-breaker for an IT manager, given how dependent most companies are on their networks. New England engineering company Wright-Pierce has grown from one office in 2000 to five today. The move from all LAN to lots of WAN traffic forced the company a few years ago to let employees download large CAD files only once a day and upload them again at the end of the day--intolerable at an engineering firm. "My name became mud as fast as you could spell it," IT manager Ray Sirois says. Sirois installed Riverbed appliances in 2003 as a beta customer of the vendor's first release. The caching mechanism decreased the amount of traffic over the WAN as much as 95% while letting engineers collaborate on CAD files as they had on the LAN.

The WAN optimization market started in the late 1990s with Packeteer's rate-shaping, a queuing scheme that let users allocate bandwidth by protocol or application. The new generation of appliances typically combines a series of features, including protocol optimization, data compression, disk-based file caching, and to a lesser degree load balancing, which is found in complementary application delivery controllers from F5 and in Citrix's NetScaler. Established vendors like Packeteer and Expand are working to add features as robust as those of newer entrants such as Riverbed and Juniper.

Protocol optimization looks to cut the number of round trips made in specific types of transmissions, like Windows file transfers that run on the CIFS protocol, E-mail on the MAPI protocol, Novell NetWare on the NSF protocol, and Web traffic on HTTP. Disk-based file caching operates on the premise that the best way to unclog the WAN is to send less data. Caching attempts to recognize recently sent data and not resend it--so at Wright-Pierce, when a recently downloaded CAD file that has been slightly tweaked is updated, the engineer sends only the updated piece of the larger file back to the file server, decreasing the amount of data on the link.

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