It's time for technology solution providers to stop thinking about WAN acceleration and optimization as a specialty networking skill set.
WAN optimizers are becoming a far more commonplace part of overall network equipment strategy discussions. Indeed, IDC expected WAN acceleration to be one of the fastest growing pieces of the network equipment market in 2012, reaching $1.3 billion in revenue.
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You can blame it on the need for instant gratification. Even small businesses want their network traffic to move as quickly as possible.
"I've been faced with clients who have invested in a T1 connection only to find that they can't … pull data from a remote office as fast as they would like. Rather than go out and purchase more capacity, they are investing in WAN acceleration appliances," said Robinson Roca, senior network engineer with BBH Solutions Inc., a network integrator in New York.
Increasingly, businesses are including WAN acceleration requirements as part of new installations or move requests, rather than making it a secondary mandate, Roca said.
"The trend three to five years ago was that people would purchase a 10 MB T1 connection or bigger that would work," echoed Bill Ellis, technical director of foundational technologies for Atrion Networking Corp., an IT services company in Warwick, R.I. "But bandwidth is only a piece of the solution."
Part of the overall plan
Companies now are considering their acceleration and optimization needs in the context of their overall traffic management plan, one that includes data compression and deduplication.
"It's really about the end user experience; you have to understand the impact to them," Ellis said. "You don't just deploy these solutions for the sake of deploying them; you have to tie them back to the overall business model."
Beyond a deep baseline understanding of network layers and architecture, engineers will need to develop their knowledge at the application layer, said Benson Yeung, founder and senior partner at Triware Networld Systems LLC, an integrator in Santa Clara, Calif. That includes knowledge of Microsoft Exchange, SQL Server and a variety of file transfer protocols.
"You can further optimize based on understanding how the applications are being used over the WAN. You need to understand how to ask the right question," Yeung said.
One line of questioning should center on whether or not a customer has overseas offices, where network bandwidth might be hard or very cost-prohibitive to provision.
"If your customer is a worldwide organization, especially a manufacturer with sites in India, China or even Indonesia, [the business] could face very different costs depending on where those offices are located," he said. "You could pay a lot to get a T1. Sometimes it is more than 10 times more expensive."
Scoping a WAN optimization project can be complicated, which is one reason that Westron Communications Inc. often chooses to team up with another solution provider to help implement these solutions, said Dave Casey, CEO of the Frisco, Texas-based integrator. For now, it has chosen not to dedicate specialized resources.
"Usually we ask them if they are doing anything or contemplating this, even if it is just part of the overall discovery," he said.
Shifting market landscape
As of January 2012, the leaders in WAN optimization technology included Riverbed Technology, Silver Peak Systems Inc. and Blue Coat Systems Inc., according to the Gartner Magic Quadrant Matrix for this sector. As you might expect, Cisco Systems is a serious challenger to these WAN optimization vendors, according to the research.
All of these companies take different approaches to accelerating or optimizing traffic, Roca said. Some WAN optimizers use emulation that helps their appliances sense what sort of data is incoming and take action, while others compress the traffic to help them find a short cut. Either approach is valid.
Like many other IT solutions, however, cloud computing is transforming WAN optimization, which could put pressure on these players over time.
One service provider to watch closely is Aryaka Networks Inc., which delivers what it calls WAN Optimization as-a-Service. The offering removes the need for a separate WAN optimization appliance by redirecting traffic to a point of presence, where application response time is accelerated.
"Their solution doesn't require you to buy the equipment," Yeung said. "Expensive hardware is falling out of vogue. Plus, they can reach a lot of places."
Heather Clancy is an award-winning business journalist in the New York City area with more than 20 years of experience.