Evaluating Riverbed Steelhead WAN optimization

Riverbed Steelhead appliances for WAN optimization are focused on specific enterprise applications -- such as rich media, thin clients, Web apps and disaster recovery -- scalability and ease of installation.

Riverbed Technology positions itself as being in the business of providing performance improvements to networked environments. Riverbed's WAN optimization products, both appliance-based and virtual, are branded under the product name Steelhead. The company differentiates itself in the market in part based on the relationships that it has with key technology partners, including Microsoft, EMC, HP, IBM and VMware.

For example, relative to its relationship with Microsoft, Riverbed stated that, "Riverbed is the first vendor in the WOC [WAN optimization controller] space to have obtained Microsoft's SVVP certification as well as the only vendor to support Microsoft Server 2008 R2. We also have an OEM agreement to sell Microsoft Windows as part of our RSP (The Riverbed Services Platform provides customers with the capability to run up to five additional services and applications virtually on VMware in a protected partition on the Steelhead appliance) offering. Finally, we belong to the Microsoft Protocol Optimization Licensing Program (POLP), enabling us to work closely with Microsoft as we do research and development."

Over the last few years, Riverbed has been quite consistent in stating that IT organizations buy Riverbed products for three primary reasons:

  • Speed: Riverbed claims to deliver better performance across the key applications that enterprises care about the most: rich client applications, thin clients, Web applications, and disaster recovery applications.
  • Scalability: Riverbed claims to both scale up in speed and scale out to support thousands of locations.
  • Simplicity: Riverbed claims that IT organizations can get a Steelhead appliance up and running in just minutes.

Important facts about Riverbed Steelhead WAN optimization

The entire line of Steelhead appliances supports all of Riverbed's software acceleration features, and all branch office appliances support the Riverbed Services Platform for virtualizing additional branch office services.

The Riverbed Optimization System (RiOS) is the software that powers both Riverbed's line of Steelhead application acceleration appliances and the Steelhead Mobile client software. Riverbed states that although it offers quality of service (QoS) functionality, it doesn't "force customers to use [its] QoS." Steelhead products allow IT organizations to mark, tag and/or enforce QoS, and the products can do any one of these tasks, or any combination of them, while integrating with other network tools to do the remaining tasks.

Riverbed uses deduplication techniques between two Steelhead appliances as well as between a Steelhead Mobile client and an appliance. Riverbed said that while most WOC vendors use a peer-peer datastore, it uses a universal datastore that allows it to be an order of magnitude more efficient in the data center when storing data patterns that go out to many branches.

All Steelhead appliances use transparent TCP proxies that implement TCP optimization such as MX-TCP and HS-TCP. (HS-TCP -- High Speed TCP -- is a congestion control algorithm protocol defined in RFC 3649 for TCP.) Riverbed has long claimed a leadership position relative to implementing application-specific optimization. For example, in addition to optimizing the performance of Common Internet File System (CIFS), Messaging Application Program Interface (MAPI), HTTP, and NFS, Riverbed also accelerates HTTPS, Notes, Oracle, desktop virtualization, Citrix ICA and Microsoft SQL.

In addition to the breadth of applications and protocols that it accelerates, Riverbed claims that its solutions provide more functionality than other products on the market. For example, RiOS contains about a dozen CIFS optimizations for various operations such as file sharing, folder browsing, accessing files from within other applications, and maintaining optimization when multiple people access a file. Riverbed also claims:

  • To have co-developed Lotus Notes optimization with IBM.
  • That RiOS is the only WAN optimization system to provide support for the Exchange 2000, 2003 and 2007 MAPI protocol.
  • To provide about half a dozen Layer 7 optimizations for HTTP and HTTPS that go beyond its traditional methodologies of WAN optimization.

Riverbed's mobile solution is called Steelhead Mobile; the most recent edition is Steelhead Mobile 3.0. One of the key features of this release is acceleration for Windows. Riverbed says its mobile solution is unique because it is fully integrated into the branch office and data center infrastructure. Further, unlike other solutions that require a separate peer in the data center, Steelhead Mobile works with the same device that communicates with the branch office.

For more, read all the sections in our guide:

About the author:
Dr. Jim Metzler, principal at Ashton Metzler and Associates, is a widely recognized authority on network technology and its business applications. In more than 28 years of experience, Jim has helped numerous vendors refine product and service strategies and has helped enterprises evolve network infrastructures. He has directed and conducted market research at a major industry analyst firm and run a consulting firm. Jim holds a Ph.D. in numerical analysis from Boston University. He is co-authored of the book Layer 3 Switching: A Guide for IT Professionals (Prentice Hall).

This was first published in February 2010
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