Virtual wide area network (WAN) optimization can offer benefits beyond the obvious perks -- reduced server footprint and lower energy costs -- on which server virtualization has built its momentum. But for some enterprises, operating WAN optimization as a virtual machine (VM) can enable adoption in locations or in circumstances where a physical appliance could not.
Most major WAN optimization vendors offer virtual WAN optimization in two flavors -- hosted on their hardware or yours. Although the latter may lead to some finger-pointing between vendors when it comes to support and troubleshooting, proprietary WAN optimization appliances that host other VMs don't always offer the flexibility and cost savings enterprises hope to achieve with virtualization.
In 2009, Expand Networks released its virtual WAN optimization product, Virtual Accelerator, for branch offices and data centers; Blue Coat Systems followed earlier this year with its virtualized ProxySG product. Riverbed Technology and Cisco Systems will run other VMs on their appliances but do not license their controllers to run on virtual servers.
Silver Peak is the latest to debut its virtual WAN optimization offering, the VX series, a collection of virtual WAN optimization appliances ranging from 4 to 50 Mbps of capacity.
When is virtual WAN optimization a requirement rather than a matter of convenience or comfort level? At times, it's a necessity at a branch office where there is no networking pro trained to repair a dead WAN optimization controller. At others, organizations' hardware purchases are prohibited by strict compliance rules or industry-specific specifications, which only specialty vendors may be able to fulfill.
Virtual WAN optimization breeds 'baby data centers'
For one Tokyo-based security software company, the case for virtual WAN optimization grew out of the need for remote support for a concept it calls "baby data centers," according to the company's senior director of software as a service (SaaS) operations, who spoke on the condition that his name and company not be identified. The company recently consolidated many of its large data centers but is in the process of building small, no-fuss wiring closets in its branches, he said.
Because application delivery is the company's lifeblood, the networking team wanted to ensure that consolidation did not come back to bite them, the IT pro said. Physical WAN optimization controllers had been fine for its large data centers, he said, but the smaller wiring cabinets would require a site visit if a component failed or the whole appliance died.
"We don't have hands over there [in these remote locations], so we try to do as much virtualization as possible," the SaaS director said. "Even when we use these nice Tier 1 data center providers, they give us remote hands, but the turnaround time is sometimes questionable. It's definitely not dependable because they may or may not have people there physically. The second problem is they have to know exactly what they're doing, otherwise they can break a lot of things."
The software company's IT organization wanted to be able to maintain a WAN optimization controller just as it did for its virtual machines -- automated resolution and failover onto a secondary server, he said.
Even though the IT pro's physical Silver Peak controllers weren't prone to crashing, their remote management capabilities wouldn't be sufficient, he said. The company has since deployed Silver Peak's virtual WAN optimization controllers at a small number of sites.
"You can log into [physical WAN optimization appliances] remotely -- that's not a problem. It's just when they're dead and you need to fix it. You still need a person there," the IT pro said. "Failures happen, and we want to make sure the resolution is really simple or automatic. We prefer automatic."
Maintaining compliance with virtual WAN optimization
Meanwhile, other organizations may be under compliance pressures for networking gear to meet strict industry standards. For one North American wireless carrier, no device can be deployed in its network unless it meets Network Equipment Building System (NEBS) standards, which outline safety requirements for telecommunications hardware. The highest level of the standards requires devices to withstand fire, earthquakes and component failures.
Although the carrier's internal IT department was able to deploy physical WAN optimization appliances for its in-house local area networks (LANs) and WANs for the past two years, stringent adherence to NEBS compliance meant that traditional WAN optimization was not an option for the carrier's outward-facing network operations, according to a senior analyst there, who spoke on the condition of partial anonymity.
When the IT pro was offered the chance to beta test Silver Peak's VX appliances in May, that opened the door to WAN optimization in the voice and data networks for the first time, he said.
"We've known about WAN optimizers for a long time, but we also knew they were not NEBS compliant," he said. "This is such a burden on the small [vendors] that very few companies use NEBS systems. But what the VX series has allowed us to do is … go and buy a certified NEBS box from another vendor [and run virtual WAN optimization on it]."
Virtual WAN optimization on land, at sea and in the air
Demand for virtual WAN optimization has been growing among government and military organizations, according to Howard Teicher, vice president of public sector and satellite markets at Expand and a former national security official.
Military IT organizations are looking for WAN optimization no matter where they are -- helicopters, Humvees, combat aircraft -- especially when carrying network traffic via satellite or when it needs to withstand rugged environments, Teicher said.
"The Army isn't interested in a 19-inch rack mount from anybody," he said.
Increasingly, they are turning to virtual WAN optimization. Demand for virtual WAN optimization has also come from civilian airline carriers and fishing and mining companies operating near the North Pole, Teicher said.
"I'll get a call from special forces -- special forces need a small quantity of 3 by 3-inch ruggedized, [military] spec, small form-factor hardware," he said. "None of [the virtual WAN optimization vendors] makes that, but you can be sure that specialized units have a need for this kind of small form-factor hardware … and [virtual WAN optimization] becomes just a software license."
Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, News Writer