Improved Riverbed Steelhead RiOS eases WAN-traffic taming

Version 5 delivers superior manageability, support for Exchange, and a host of other new features

With the economy slowing down and IT budgets getting tighter, trying to sell your boss on some new network equipment might defy conventional wisdom. But if the equipment helps reduce time wasted when working over a WAN, or better yet, improves overall WAN usage and user productivity, it might not be as difficult a sale as you thought.

Now in its fifth release, Riverbed Technologies RiOS WAN acceleration operating system adds some new features to an already impressive list of services and also includes better centralized management through the Central Management Console (CMC). New to RiOS 5 is native Exchange 2007 support, easier HTTPS configuration, and a better QoS engine. Overall WAN performance is on par or better than in previous releases, with CIFS (common Internet file system) traffic showing a modest increase and FTP cold pass improving significantly.

As with my previous reviews, my WAN test bed comprised a Shunra VE simulating my various WAN circuits, a client PC running Windows XP Pro and MJT Net Macro Scheduler, and a Windows 2003 Small Business Server. This time around, I added a second desktop running Windows Vista Business Edition and Office 2007, and another server running Windows Server 2003 R2 with Exchange 2007. As before, WAN speeds tested were 128kbps with 40ms latency and T1 (1.54Mbps) with 500ms latency and 0.5 percent packet loss.

Riverbed provided me with three WAN acceleration appliances (models 520, 1020, and 1520). The 520 and 1020 installed in front of a "branch" office with the 1520 accelerating traffic to and from the datacenter. The Centralized Management Console allowed me to monitor all three Steelheads, collate performance reports, and push out software updates. All four 1U appliances were easy to install and get online in a test configuration with the entire setup taking less than two hours to complete.

Test results nearly mirrored RiOS 4 results except for an increase in first pass FTP performance. Previously, a 155MB ISO in the T1 test took nearly 31 minutes to transfer. Now, first-pass times are in the nine-minute range. Subsequent passes are right in line with previous results (averaging slightly more than one minute).

If it isn't broken...

This release of RiOS refines an already stable and well rounded offering, adding and tweaking instead of ripping and replacing. One of the items that falls into the "tweaked" category is secure Web traffic (HTTPS). It is now easier to configure Steelheads to optimize SSL traffic than it was with RiOS 4.

Previously, admins had to manually establish a trust between appliances by copying certificates between Steelheads. Now, when a Steelhead tries to optimize HTTPS between an acceleration pair, the remote Steelhead will automatically send its certificate to the other Steelhead, which in turn gray-lists the appliance. An admin then either accepts or rejects the gray-listed appliance. If the appliance is rejected (blacklisted), it will not be able to optimize SSL traffic but will instead simply pass it on over the WAN un-optimized. By creating this automated certificate facility, SSL configuration is much easier and less prone to error while allowing IT to maintain control over how and when HTTPS traffic is optimized.

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