The trend toward WAN acceleration via software, versus dedicated optimization appliances, is not new: For years, key vendors like Cisco and Riverbed have been looking to extend the benefits of WAN optimization from the branch office to remote workers with small software clients installed on laptops and smartphones.
"For the remote user, a laptop user, or if they work in a small office where it's going to be tough to justify a full appliance … appliance-less is a great way to do it," said Matthias Machowinski, a directing analyst with Infonetics Research.
Some relative newcomers to the WAN optimization field are finding success by telling companies they can even eliminate WAN optimization appliances at larger branch sites by replacing them with WAN optimization software running on servers or by embedding the WAN acceleration software on existing branch office hardware such as routers or multi-service gateways.
This is the tack taken by Expand Networks, and it has earned the company some fans: Expand won "Best of Interop" in the WAN performance optimization category this year, and it was recently ranked the most complete offering in a study by the Aberdeen Group on WAN optimization.
However, software-based WAN acceleration products that do away with expensive appliances for branches and end users are neither new nor unique to Expand Networks. "Traditionally the [WAN optimization] market was completely appliance based, but it's moving more toward software," Machowinski said. "IT managers would like to manage less stuff rather than more stuff. Cisco has been able to capture decent market share this way with the Cisco ISR [Integrated Service Router]."
With the ISR, a branch office can have a router, Cisco Wide Area Application Services (WAAS), and other functionality all embedded in a single device, meaning the IT organization has fewer unique appliances to contend with when trying to manage a branch remotely.
Vendors have recognized the market demand for the simplicity of the software approach. Riverbed recently inked a deal with HP, for example, which will place its software on HP's ProCurve ONE switches in a blade server form factor.
The company also offers WAN acceleration software for laptops and desktops that performs almost as well as its appliances, according to Nik Rouda, product marketing manager for Riverbed.
"Because the core architectures are the same, the improvements in speed are about the same," he said. "You can see about 85% to 90% reduced data throughput."
But Rouda said that there are still some benefits to having WAN optimization appliances, which come down to speed and scalability.
While both platforms, for example, will speed up traffic for documents repeatedly accessed by a user, the WAN optimization appliance can store terabytes of historical data. If one branch office user downloads a video file, that video is cached. A week later, a second user will have near-instantaneous access to that same video when he tries to download it. Users of Riverbed's mobile client, on the other hand, would have to re-download the video each time.
Expand Networks is trying to work around this by having clients in a branch office intelligently detect one another and team up: If one laptop has the video file, for example, another can download it directly from within the branch without having to go back to the original source.
Advances like these, and the maturing WAN optimization market, are driving the shift away from dedicated WAN optimization appliances. As more WAN optimization vendors try to sell their products as software, partnerships of multi-purpose products like Cisco's ISR are becoming even more important, Machowinski said.
"Riverbed is generally seen as one of the top companies in this space, HP is the No. 2 or 3 switch vendor, so that's the big alliance," he said. "It definitely seems like Blue Coat could be helped by another alliance with a technology vendor that has a broad slice of the market."
Independent analyst Nick Lippis had a few theories about who that technology vendor partner could be.
"Juniper doesn't really have a WAN optimization play yet. That would be one company where there could or should be collaboration," he said.
A pause in the WAN optimization market
Adding urgency on all sides to these partnership, both vendor and customer, is the state of the economy.
Although the WAN optimization market was flat in the first quarter of 2009, Infonetics will soon publish new findings which reveal that the market dipped 14% in revenue in the second quarter, Machowinski said.
That decline is not as bad as some other networking market segments, he said. And he expects WAN optimization to bounce back or at least remain flat for the year compared with 2008.
"We've seen a slowdown in WAN optimization, but it is still doing better than any other related network equipment areas," he said. "I think for WAN optimization it's easy to make the case that … if you have to buy more WAN bandwidth, [you have] added expenses. In the first quarter, there was quite a pause in the market overall."