WAN optimization: Tactical or strategic or both?

IT management is an industry that is ambitiously skating towards a revolution

As you may have suspected from some of my prior columns, I've found the product strategies in the WAN optimization market something of a puzzle.

IT management is an industry that is ambitiously skating towards a revolution -- toward a more Lego-like world of interconnectedness (not to sound too much like someone from the Sixties). In contrast, briefings with many of the WAN optimization crowd reminded me of my days supporting IBM marketing for Token Ring - all speeds and feeds with little interest in end-to-end visibility and strategic integration. The fact that this is beginning to change is a good thing, in my view.

WAN optimization products typically provide WAN data services that accelerate application performance. WAN optimization technologies are varied and may include application compression, packet payload optimization, and Wide Area File Services (WAFS), among others. These are all focused on individual links and most commonly deployed at critical junctures with remote branch offices.

The issues have been that while WAN optimization products deliver real value on a link-by-link basis, they obscure end-to-end visibility so that strategic planners are left to guess at the real "before" and "after." They are also typically housed as an appliance with, up until very recently, little interest in integration with the rest of the management community. Finally, as "cheese-stand-alone" solutions, they become costly when scaled to large enterprise environments with hundreds and sometimes thousands of remote locations.

This somewhat ambivalent position was underscored in some EMA research just completed across 180 respondents primarily in North America and targeting a whole array of issues surrounding the changing role of networking and network operations. These ranged from a focused set of questions on managing Web applications over the network, to responsibilities in managing non-networking devices in remote locations, to interest in UC and emerging technologies, to CMDB System perceptions among networking professionals.

The questions on WAN optimization fit into the broader set of managing applications over a network and produced the following rather striking results. In the survey, when asked if WAN optimization was tactical or strategic, tactical won out 46 per cent to 44 per cent, with the rest abstaining. The most dominant reason for being strategic was "They support my strategies for virtualization across the infrastructure." This in itself gave me pause. I parsed this to mean "They support the strategies I wish I had for virtualization across the infrastructure." The next two were tied and close -- saving in bandwidth costs and allowing for the assimilation of remote locations more effectively. These have been the mainstay of the WAN optimization market to date.

The slight majority's number one reason for viewing WAN optimization as tactical was its poor capabilities for integration, plus "They will be replaced by newer technologies that provide better end-to-end path optimization in the future." I won't comment on this except to feel a little bit vindicated after some of the conversations I've had in the past on integration and product design. The third reason to vote for tactical was "They are too expensive to scale to my infrastructure."

The good news that in the past year and especially in the last six months, the industry has seen some moves to break out of its silo. Most notably, in recent months, Riverbed has integrated with NetScout's nGenius Performance Management System and then announced intentions to integrate with OPNET's products. Prior to that, Riverbed announced integrations with Mazu Networks, which has in turn also integrated with Packeteer/Blue Coat. Last summer, NetQoS announced integration with Cisco's Wide Area Application Services (WAAS). And other vendors in WAN optimization have also made efforts to step into the broader market - e.g. Expand, through its virtualization initiative, and Ipanema with its service impact directions across the WAN.

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