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I quoted a drastic drop in WAN optimization appliance sales in my latest column, which startled some into believing the WAN optimization market is fading away, when in fact, it's quite the opposite. While WAN optimization appliances are seeing a steep revenue decline of 20% from the previous quarter, according to Infonetics, the broader cloud WAN optimization market may be increasing enough to offset the difference.
Virtual and cloud WAN optimization controllers
As anyone who has followed WAN optimization technology will know, WAN optimization controllers (WOCs) and application delivery controllers (ADCs) are being virtualized -- meaning the vendors are offering software-only versions of products that they traditionally sold only as hardware appliances. Virtual instances of the technology can run in a virtual machine (VM); some vendors are even offering cloud WAN optimization as a service. Different WAN optimization vendors offer varying solutions, but nearly every WOC/ADC vendor has some form of virtual or cloud WAN optimization available to enterprises today.
WAN optimization is very crucial for the success of business applications.
These virtual and cloud WAN optimization solutions gained traction last year. Yet, in 2012, very little data has been recorded on these segments of the market. The Infonetics report does not yet include the WAN-optimization-as-a-service segment, according to Sam Barnett, directing analyst of data center and cloud at Infonetics. While the report includes virtual WOCs and ADCs into the overall rollup of the market, not all vendors provide a breakout of these sales, so it's difficult to tell which solutions are more popular.
Barnett does, however, believe that "software and other virtualized solutions will keep these markets moving forward for some time to come."
Why virtual WOCs and cloud WAN optimization matter to enterprises
Enterprises love the quick deployment times and flexibility these virtual and cloud acceleration solutions offer.
"It's an awful lot easier to move around a virtual anything. You don't have to ship appliances across a region or ocean. So it typically lowers costs and makes it faster and easier to deploy," said Dr. Jim Metzler of Ashton, Metzler & Associates.
The pricing, too, is accessible to midsize and small companies looking to accelerate network traffic saturated with real-time applications like voice and video. Prices will vary: Aryaka's cloud-WAN-optimization service starts at $500 a month for a 1 Mbps optimized link, while a hardware-based WOC can run from $2,500 to $10,000 (save for Ipanema's nano|engine line) and still require a form of transport, like an MPLS link.
When comparing hardware to software WAN optimization controllers "it's not just the device that you need. … Oftentimes you need to buy two boxes, and the more branches you are, the bigger the box at your headquarters [needs to be]. … There's a total cost of ownership that we all use," explained Sonal Puri, Arkyaka's vice president of marketing.
WAN-optimization-as-a-service deals have greatly increased for vendors like Aryaka. The cloud-WAN-optimization startup has gained over 60 global customers within its first year of launch, with names like Aruba Networks, Calypso and Radware under its belt.
"We don't think the [WAN optimization] market is weak. We believe it is merely undergoing a transformation from hardware-heavy appliances to cloud services," Aryaka's Jay Mejia wrote in an email.
Silver Peak, too, argues that WAN optimization is transforming rather than dying. Silver Peak's virtual solution can optimize any application across any link by accelerating at the IP network layer. For those interested in dabbling in the technology, it even offers free lightweight virtual WAN optimization.
When is a WAN not a WAN?
While 2011 might have been the year that virtual and cloud WAN optimization made traction, 2012 is shaping up to be the year that vendors are adopting a next generation of WAN optimization, like mobile and Web acceleration. Many traditional WAN optimization vendors are adding Web optimization to their list of capabilities to stay relevant for enterprises that want to optimize Internet-connected branch offices. These offices choose Internet connectivity in order to connect to cloud services and to achieve cost savings.
This evolution reflects changes in enterprise WAN design. Traditional WANs were thought to inter link local area networks (LANs) from one region to another using a private telecommunication line. Today, broadband is changing the type of transport used in enterprises, while organizations use it to connect directly to cloud services. The amount of applications used in organizations is growing, and transforming office behaviors are adding remote workers and road warriors to the mix of users vying for data center connectivity.
In turn, the definition of a wide area network is evolving. Today it's any transport that interconnects two distant locations. Akamai has gone so far as to call the Internet the new WAN. These changes have prompted optimization vendors like Riverbed to shy away from the term WAN, because the company is optimizing so much more than traditional WAN links.
Confusion in the industry about what the WAN is and what comprises WAN optimization will likely make tracking the industry equally difficult to make heads or tails of. The market isn't going away nor is the technology becoming less important. On the contrary, WAN optimization is a ubiquitous technology that enterprises are entering into the planning stages of network design -- some are simply paying service providers to do the work.
In the words of a senior network manager managing 250 locations, who asked not to be named: "WAN optimization is very crucial for the success of business applications. To deliver proper application capabilities of VoIP, video [and] ERP, it is very essential to have."