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Mobile WAN optimization: Adoption still slow, some barriers lifted

Although vendors are attempting to remove barriers to adoption of mobile WAN optimization, uptake remains slow and limited to special use cases or specific vertical markets.

The mobile workforce is growing, but wide area network (WAN) managers aren't buying mobile WAN optimization software licenses. They say the investment isn't worthwhile for enterprises with armies of knowledge workers who occasionally use remote access for email and Web-based applications.

Although vendors are attempting to remove barriers to adoption and add some sparkle to this new market niche, uptake remains slow and limited to special use cases or specific vertical markets, such as mobile sales personnel or engineering firms.

"If you're remote, what do you access? Probably your email. And a lot of email is Web-based, so it's already optimized for wide-area type of access," said Mattias Machowinski, directing analyst at Infonetics. "I'm not saying there's no use for [mobile WAN optimization] -- almost every vendor offers this capability, and they should. But whether it's going to be this huge standalone [technology]? I don't think that's going to be the case." 

Although Machowinski has not tracked the number of units shipped, he said some WAN optimization vendors, including Blue Coat Systems, don't even bother trying to sell mobile WAN optimization software. Instead, Blue Coat includes the technology as a free feature in its hardware. Riverbed Technology, which recently announced an update to its Steelhead Mobile product, sells its Steelhead Mobile Controller at list price of $12,995. Software licenses are sold in increments of 30 concurrent sessions.

"I'm surprised they're still talking about it. They used to call it out on their [quarterly earnings] conference calls, and then they stopped doing it," Machowinski said, noting that the last mention came in the third quarter of 2009, when Riverbed reported that its mobile product accounted for 3% of revenue.

Vendors are trying to drum up interest for their mobile WAN optimization software products with expanded capabilities that touch on industry-wide trends. With its version 3.1 update, Riverbed will support optimization for Citrix virtual desktops on mobile clients. Other updates include additional acceleration for Microsoft SharePoint through the elimination of redundant authentication requests.

Earlier this summer, Cisco Systems played up the cloud computing angle when it announced a batch of upgrades to its Wide Area Application Services (WAAS) product line, including WAAS Mobile 3.5. The latest version of Cisco's mobile WAN optimization software targets acceleration of traffic between mobile users and public cloud computing servers and applications.

Mobile WAN optimization could grow in relevance as enterprises continue to adapt to a down economy and adopt more WAN-intensive applications around collaboration, remote training and virtual desktops, according to Andre Kindness, senior analyst at Forrester Research.

"We're starting to see [that companies] aren't hiring everybody back as permanent employees. We're seeing a lot more temporary employees being brought back, and we're seeing they're being asked to work at home … and have their own hardware," Kindness said. "It's at the infancy stage right now, but the trend is for organizations to continuously grow year over year from now on into a more mobile workforce."

Removing barriers to mobile WAN optimization adoption

Mobile WAN optimization software would have been a natural fit for Loomis Group, a San Francisco-based marketing firm with branch offices in Boston and Paris. About 60% of the firm's 105 users regularly work from home or a client's location, according to Eric Mayer, Loomis' director of technology. 

[Lack of Macintosh support] was actually one of the reasons we didn't implement Steelhead Mobile as quickly as possible.

Eric Mayer
Director of Technology, Loomis Group

Collaboration among creative teams accounts for a significant portion of the firm's WAN traffic -- including catalogues of Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator graphics files, each toting about several hundred megabytes -- in addition to the constant flow of PDF andPowerPoint files for client presentations.

Mayer deployed Riverbed's traditional Steelhead appliances in the three offices about a year and a half ago. At the time, he also bought Riverbed's Steelhead Mobile Controller, the appliance that manages its mobile WAN optimization software.

But the mobile WAN optimization controller became "shelfware," he said. Other projects took priority; but, more notably, the deployment was held up because Riverbed's mobile WAN optimization software at the time did not support Apple Macintosh clients, which account for about 50% of Loomis' users.

"That was actually one of the reasons we didn't implement Steelhead Mobile as quickly as possible," Mayer said. "We implement things that are going to bring the greatest benefit to our entire workforce … but the people who are going to use it the most, the creative teams, [weren't supported]."

That adoption barrier came down when Mayer was invited to beta test Riverbed's latest version of Steelhead Mobile, which will support Apple's Leopard and Snow Leopard operating systems. He expects to deploy mobile WAN optimization company-wide, after a few months of testing, with 35 consecutive session licenses.

"It would be hard to justify licenses for 80% of our workforce if they're only going to use it occasionally," Mayer said.

One of his test users, a creative manager at Loomis, works remotely twice a week and often continues to work from home after leaving the office, he said. Her job required her to create and edit large Photoshop and Illustrator files, but saving and transferring edits across the WAN was unbearably slow for her.

Before using mobile WAN optimization, she would spend an hour or two downloading to her local hard drive all the files she would need to work on that night. Once she was finished with her work, she would do a batch upload that took two to three hours on average, Mayer said.

"She'd start the transfer and go make dinner, do laundry, put the kids to bed, whatever the case was, and come back to make sure it wasn't timing out, because she'd get a lot of timeouts on the upload side and have to restart the process," he said. "Inevitably, she would get to work the next day and say, 'Oh, I forgot this file and there's a deadline,' so she'd have to recreate [the changes] from memory or they'd push the deadline."

With the compression and data deduplication capabilities of the mobile WAN optimization client from Riverbed, her uploads now take 30 minutes, Mayer said.

"We already had a good idea of … the benefits … we'd derive from the product, but we wanted to see it in action," he said. "It wasn't life-altering … [but] her workflow has changed quite a bit."

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

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