Cisco steps up its WAN optimization game

Cisco Tuesday is set to introduce a product suite that couples the company's Wide-Area File Services and content distribution technologies with optimization features to deliver an integrated feature set that tackles application performance over the WAN and at branch offices.

Cisco Wide-Area Application Services (WAAS) combines the company's existing Wide-Area Application Engines (WAE) and integrated network modules running Cisco WAFS and Cisco Application and Content Networking System (ACNS) software. Cisco acquired its WAFS technology with Actona back in 2004, and incorporated other technologies (TCP and HTTP optimization, delta-based caching and compression) from various groups within Cisco. According to Cisco, WAAS will offer enterprise network managers responsible for multiple branch offices "the benefits of centralized infrastructure and simple remote access to applications, storage and content."

The WAAS technology is software delivered on a variety of data center and branch office appliances: the WAE-7326 and the WAE-612 for data centers, and the WAE-512 and NM-WAE for branch offices. The company also designed WAAS to fit into existing Cisco gear.

Cisco earlier this year announced its Application Control Engine (ACE), which is a blade that resides in a switch deployed between a server and the WAN to speed application delivery. Now WAAS includes the NM-WAE module, a product that fits into Cisco's 2800 and 3800 Integrated Services Routers (ISR). WAAS products plug in to the network -- with devices installed symmetrically at the data center and in the branch office to enable technologies such as compression -- and can be configured with various administrative and access rights for IT managers, depending on their job description, Cisco says.

WAAS is Cisco's foray into the bustling WAN optimization market, which includes competition from the likes of Expand Networks, F5 Networks, Juniper Networks, Riverbed and more. Protocol optimizations, caching, content distribution, and streaming media technologies are among the features Cisco baked into WAAS. Ideally, Cisco says the technology will allow customers to consolidate distributed servers and storage into centrally managed data centers, while also taking advantage of existing Cisco infrastructure.

"It is significant because Cisco is finally entering the market with a product that appears to be very competitive. From a feature set standpoint, Cisco has done a good job," says Joe Skorupa, a research vice president at Gartner. "The competition has been out long enough that Cisco could see what others were doing and pick and choose the best features and approaches from across the enterprise competitive spectrum and incorporate those into the WAAS."

Cisco, which industry watchers say has been holding back for some time in the WAN optimization market, may have bided its time accurately. Early reviews indicate WAAS could provide the feature-rich product set customers will be looking for as WAN optimization buyers move from best-of-breed point products into second-generation technologies.

"With WAAS, Cisco also offers a way to implement WAN optimization using your existing routing and switching infrastructure, [which is] critical because enterprise [companies] are trying to find ways of rationalizing how much infrastructure they should put in each branch," says Robert Whiteley, a senior analyst with Forrester Research. "This is also significant because Cisco can capitalize on a second wave of enterprise [companies] looking to invest in acceleration technologies."

According to Whiteley, the application acceleration and WAN optimization markets to date have been largely dominated by early adopters -- IT buyers that needed to get technology in place quickly to address an acute pain point. Best-of-breed point products filled that gap, at least initially, and technologies from companies such as Blue Coat Networks, Expand, F5, Juniper, Packeteer and Riverbed flourishing in large enterprise IT shops. Now, as more companies consolidate data centers and want to achieve the promised benefits of optimization technologies, vendors such as Cisco -- with network infrastructure installed at some 80 percent of the market and a broad range of products -- could reap the rewards when latecomers start buying into WAN optimization.

"There is a second wave of adopters: those with a more cautious implementation strategy and who prefer to deal with fewer vendors," Whiteley says. "There are the folks that have been literally waiting for Cisco to come out with a solution. Now the network goliath is finally delivering."

As Cisco poses significant competition to existing technology leaders, the company will not be completely without its challenges entering the crowded WAN optimization market, analysts say. Gartner's Skorupa points out the company still needs to fully integrate WAAS with existing ACNS products, as well as prove the WAAS technologies can scale to "bigger networks and high bandwidth." Also considering Cisco's network play, the company may have to establish relationships with a different set of IT buyers.

"Cisco still lacks good contacts in the application departments that Citrix/Microsoft, F5, Juniper and Riverbed have. Cisco will find it easier to sell when the network teams, or possibly, the storage teams, take the lead. When servers or applications are in the lead, Cisco is in a less powerful position," Skorupa says.

Forrester's Whiteley agrees. WAAS success will depend partly on Cisco delivering technology that does what it proposes, but also it will depend partly on if Cisco can convince IT shops that acceleration and optimization products belong in the network.

"Cisco needs to make sure it convinces people that this [technology] belongs in the network. Part of the reason Riverbed and others have done so well is because they don't sell directly to the network managers in the enterprise. Instead they go after line-of-business owners, application owners or data center managers," Whiteley explains. "For Cisco, to flex its muscle with network gurus, it must prove that its solution is just as effective as a module in an ISR router or a blade in a Catalyst switch -- which is a unique value proposition that no other vendor can touch."

Entry level pricing for the WA-512 series appliance is about US$8,500 and the NM-WAE costs about US$4,000 to start for Cisco ISR customers. Select WAAS products are generally available this week; the NM-WAE is set to ship by year-end.

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