Expect more from WAN optimization than just optimization

Interop group told that network and application awareness are key

WAN optimization is becoming just an element of larger application-delivery schemes that vendors are approaching quite differently, Interop attendees were told this week.

Vendors at a panel on WAN optimization debated the best way to go, which ranged from buying optimization as a service, to an application-centric process, to a piece of a plan to streamline branch offices and save money to a feature in a dynamic process that adjusts to changing demands.

Regardless of which method businesses choose to speed traffic across WAN links, they need to realize that vendors' claims about the performance boosts they can gain must be tested in real-world networks, says the session's moderator Jim Metzler, a principal in Aston, Metzler & Associates. "You need to try these technologies out in your own environment on your own applications," he says.

Representatives of Blue Coat, Cisco, Citrix, F5 Networks, Ipanema and Riverbed debated the merits of their approaches, all of which involved a larger purpose than modifying WAN traffic to boost response times. A seventh WAN optimization vendor – Expand Networks – didn't participate in the panel, but walked away with the Best of Interop's award for performance optimization.

Expand also used the show to announce its Mobile Accelerator Client (MACC) that extends optimization to individual computers using what Expand calls HIVE Technology. MACC software resides on laptops and desktops and optimizes traffic to Expand appliances located at data centers. Without the client, Expand optimization works only between Expand appliances.The software automatically seeks other MACC clients in the same location to set up a shared cache of data drawn from the data center so it can be used by all the machines without each one having to fetch it over the WAN. When MACC is available in the fourth quarter, customers can buy licenses for $100 each to allow a given number of MACC clients to work simultaneously, but they get as many instances of the client as they want free of charge.

MACC can also work on its own if there are no other machines in the same location with the client running, and it goes idle if the machine is moved to a location that has an Expand appliance fronting its WAN links.

Meanwhile at the session, Cisco's representative Mark Weiner said it is key to integrate WAN optimization in with the underlying physical infrastructure and other networking elements such as security and QoS.

Citrix's Satya Vardharajan said the network knowledge its virtualization and traffic shaping gear gathers can be used to better determine what traffic in WAN flows requires priority treatment vs. other traffic. "We do end-to-end application monitoring," he said.

Ipanema, which sells an optimization service, says that based on customer-set policies, it adapts to traffic mix and can shift the queuing to accommodate traffic deemed more important or delay sensitive. "Customers define what they consider good performance. If traffic patterns change over time, the performance targets don't change," said Peter Schmidt, the North American CTO for Ipanema.

Riverbed said its focus is on saving the cost of infrastructure in branch offices by including massive hard drives in their appliances that can support virtual machines. The idea is for the devices to host applications in branches without using separate server hardware, boosting performance because client server traffic stays local. Its gear also can denote traffic as latency sensitive and if it increases, allow it to burst over its allocated bandwidth and other lower priority traffic.

F5 said its gear seeks context for traffic and treats it accordingly. So if a device is attaching via Wi-Fi, the traffic needs to be adjusted for performance and security. F5 has made a big push to form partnerships with other vendors so their gear can share information about network and application performance, says Kenneth Salchow, a technical marketing manager for F5.

Blue Coat said visibility of all applications on the network is key in order to improve performance. Knowing the types of streams that exist within traffic flows is essential to keep applications running optimally, said Mark Urban, Blue Coat's senior director of product marketing.

Metzler noted that in his experience corporate customers don't have the ability to see detailed traffic analysis despite its being talked about for years. "Visibility is not real," he said. "It's not happening today."

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