The two best things about WAN optimization are that it practically guarantees better response times for applications while at the same time either reducing the need for WAN bandwidth or at least staving off for a while the need to boost it.
Initially the technology was deployed via appliances placed at both ends of WAN connections that perform a variety of optimizations that reduce the number of bits that have to cross the wire in order to complete transactions, but over the years, providers have stepped up to offer WAN optimization as a service.
Which to choose?
Some providers offer optimization services based on installing appliances made by somebody else at customer sites and managing them. Other providers offer optimized networks over which customers run their traffic with no need for devices at customer sites.
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BACKGROUND: WAN Optimization Research Center
These two models are blending into one over time, says Joe Skorupa, an analyst with Gartner. For instance, optimized-network provider Aryaka has also developed an inexpensive branch-office device to overcome the performance problems plaguing sites that connect to POPs via low-bandwidth links.
While the service is architected not to need these devices, the reality is that performance demands them, Skorupa says. Those connections to small sites are frequently too narrow to carry unoptimized traffic without running into the bottleneck problems WAN optimization is supposed to overcome, he says. So rather than a pure network service, Aryaka in some cases includes on-premise devices that it manages.
Meanwhile, the other type of providers - the ones that manage on-site devices made by others - is also trending toward placing inexpensive devices in smaller and smaller offices. Currently the hardware vendors don't typically offer appliances inexpensive enough to reach smaller sites cost-effectively, so these managed services reach only larger sites, he says.
But that, too, is changing. Witness the recent announcement by Ipanema - which sells its devices mainly to service providers to support WAN optimization services - of a $600 branch-office appliance whose street price is likely much less, he says. That is how WAN optimization will penetrate the 90% of sites that don't use it now, he says.
Similarly Silver Peak, known for its high-end WAN optimization gear, is licensing its software to customers so they can run it in smaller offices on standard hardware.
So for now, businesses that buy their own WAN optimization gear do so knowing their smallest offices may not warrant the equipment, but that it brings value to larger sites and data centers. But some vendors are already addressing the small-appliance problem. Riverbed, for instance, includes a virtual server environment on its WAN optimization gear for branch offices. While the gear is pricier than $600, it gives customers the chance to consolidate branch office servers onto a single device, which may reduce the net cost of outfitting these offices with IT gear.
Another shift taking place in services is the alliance of WAN optimization device vendors with content delivery networks, such as that between Citrix and Cotendo. With optimization available at the edge of the CDN, business customers can optimize all the way back to their sites, Skorupa says. "Over time, more and more optimization will be embedded in the network," he says.
Despite advances in optimization services, there is still demand for businesses owning WAN optimization gear, he says. "There are times when you have to own your own equipment," he says. Corporate culture that views the network as a strategic advantage may demand ownership. A fluid network environment may require ownership so optimization can be tweaked quickly as needed. And there may be no service provider available that can meet corporate needs, he says.
That's for now, but as services become more sophisticated they will gain in popularity, giving the edge to services over ownership in the long run.
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