Virtual WAN optimization for the branch: Do you or don't you?

Jessica Scarpati

Who doesn't want to get rid of another piece of hardware in the branch office? Virtualized versions of wide area network controllers (WOCs) for branch offices are hitting the

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market, but whether enterprises should adopt virtual WAN optimization depends on their comfort level with virtual machines.

"Part of it is company culture. There are some companies that say, 'Do whatever the vendor wants … and get that dedicated box. We don't want it to be complicated, go to that vendor and buy it,'" said Joe Skorupa, research vice president at Gartner Inc. "There are other shops that say, 'We're a huge Dell shop, we get good discounts for Dell, and we don't want to worry about sparing.' It just comes down to what their needs are."

WAN managers may be able to cut down on some of the operational costs associated with maintaining physical appliances in branch offices, but virtual WAN optimization may not have such clear-cut savings as it appears -- there's still a subscription fee, based on the number of users. But it can be a solid choice for enterprises that are comfortable with virtual machines and looking for agility, according to Lynda Stadtmueller, senior research analyst at Stratecast, a division of Frost & Sullivan.

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"[Virtual WAN optimization] is charged to the operating budget, not the capital budget … so whether or not the real dollar cost is lower, the virtualized appliance may be budget-friendly to some enterprises," Stadtmueller said. "What a virtualized appliance does offer is flexibility.

"The appliance can be installed, moved, or decommissioned via a computer screen, without a technician crawling around connecting wires," she added. "If the data center is consolidated and moved to a hosting facility, the appliance can go with it."

Performance can also be an issue for virtual WAN optimization software. Vendors may claim otherwise, but their software won't perform identically or as powerfully as their physical appliance counterparts, Stadtmueller said.

"Is it better for all situations? Not necessarily," she said. "It appears there's some trade-off in functionality and, as noted, the cost may not be an advantage when comparing all costs. But for a branch location, which is less likely to generate significant amounts of certain traffic types, [such as] video, a virtualized appliance may offer enough functionality at a very reasonable cost to make it a worthy investment."

Virtual WAN optimization: On your server or theirs?

The latest virtual WAN optimization offering for branch offices comes from Blue Coat Systems, which will sell one- or three-year user-based subscriptions for its virtualized ProxySG product. The VMware-based system supports between five and 300 users and works alongside any VMware-based software, according to Chris Weber, a manager of product marketing at Blue Coat.

A customer will choose one or the other solely based on how they like to deploy and whether or not they have adopted virtualization in their branch already.
Chris Weber
Product Marketing ManagerBlue Coat Systems

"A customer will choose one or the other solely based on how they like to deploy and whether or not they have adopted virtualization in their branch already," Weber said. "If a customer is OK running a couple of different servers out of their branch office, then they'll probably keep a couple of different servers and buy our traditional appliance."

Two other leading WAN optimization vendors, Cisco Systems and Riverbed Technology, aren't using virtualization to run their WOCs on virtual servers. Instead, they are running virtualization software on their physical appliances, allowing enterprises to consolidate other branch-based applications onto their hardware, Skorupa said. Cisco's platform supports only Windows applications, while Riverbed's supports only about a dozen apps, he said.

Last year, Expand Networks released its virtual WAN optimization product, Virtual Accelerator, for both branch offices and data centers. Like Blue Coat's approach, Expand's virtual WAN optimization product can be deployed on existing servers.

As a complement to the product, Expand recently introduced a centralized management system, VirtualView, for reporting and monitoring its physical and virtual products.

Blue Coat's virtual WAN optimization can be deployed symmetrically or asymmetrically, Weber said. Using it with one of the vendor's physical controllers in a data center will cover all the WAN optimization bases -- email, file transfers, Web browsing -- whereas a one-sided virtual deployment will only accelerate Internet-based traffic.

Virtual WAN optimization may hold savings, but not for all

For now, Blue Coat's virtual WAN optimization controller has been tested for Dell servers, but the vendor expects to soon include IBM and Hewlett-Packard machines in that lineup, Weber said.

Enterprises that have volume purchase agreements with their server vendors will see additional benefit by using virtual WAN optimization, Skorupa said. For them, it will be a lot simpler to repair or replace a server than a WOC, he said.

"They get a great price on it, and from a spare perspective, parts will be easier and cheaper to come by," he said. "[An IT shop] sees benefit because it is hardware they're comfortable and familiar with, and it's easy to get service on [servers]."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, News Writer

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