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WAN pros welcome, question vendor claims to improve cloud performance

WAN optimization vendors have begun to tackle public cloud performance -- a move that WAN managers welcome, although some question whether efforts go far enough.

In exchange for the benefits of cloud computing, enterprises must grudgingly leave application performance and security in the hands of cloud providers and the public Internet. In response, wide area network (WAN) optimization vendors are starting to tackle cloud performance concerns with virtual appliances engineered specifically for public cloud deployments -- a move that WAN managers welcome, although some IT pros question whether vendors' efforts go far enough.

"It's definitely a great idea, but the challenge we're going to have is which of the cloud providers are really going to begin to [allow WAN optimization in their environments] and what level of control you will have," said Eugene Alfaro, manager of global IT operations and support at Simpson Manufacturing Company, Inc., a global building products manufacturer based in Pleasanton, Calif. "If I'm paying for this service, I want to know I'm getting the most out of it."

At an event this week in New York City, Riverbed Technology unveiled Cloud Steelhead -- essentially a new version of its virtual WAN optimization appliance re-engineered to perform in a public cloud environment where resources are in flux and enterprises often lack control.

Other WAN optimization vendors, namely Cisco Systems, have marketed their existing virtual WAN optimization products as "cloud-ready" but have yet to release cloud-specific appliances.

Service providers are also positioning themselves in the market. Orange Business Services partners with cloud providers and WAN optimization vendors to optimize Orange's network and customers' links into those providers' data centers. Virtela also offers application acceleration from the cloud with its Enterprise Services Cloud architecture, without restricting enterprises to specific vendors or cloud providers.

Riverbed customers provision Cloud Steelhead from a Web portal and select applications to optimize. The software uses those configurations for its "discovery agent" to detect client connections that come from behind a physical or virtual Steelhead appliance, and then redirects and optimizes the TCP connection accordingly, according to Apurva Dave, vice president of product marketing at Riverbed. 

"You have no access to the routers in a cloud environment. You have no way to actually know where your application or where your [Cloud] Steelhead would be deployed … [so] it makes it very hard for the Steelhead or any WAN optimization infrastructure to actually see the traffic it's supposed to optimize," Dave said. "We've avoided the need for [WAN managers to get] into any nitty-gritty network redesign or complexity in order to make this process happen."

But here's the catch: Availability of the cloud-based virtual appliances will depend on the partnerships Riverbed and future WAN optimization vendors ink with cloud providers. Riverbed's first partner, Amazon, will be ready to support Cloud Steelhead in its Elastic Cloud Compute (EC2) and Virtual Private Cloud (VPC) by the end of the year, said Joe Ghory, senior product marketing manager at Riverbed.  

Riverbed plans to extend Cloud Steelhead's partnerships to other cloud providers and to other cloud services besides Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), Ghory said.

Eliminating bandwidth concerns, improving cloud performance

Ben Bailey, manager of IT services at AVST, a unified communications (UC) software vendor based in Foothill Ranch, Calif., had looked at cloud computing services from Amazon and AT&T but was pessimistic about cloud performance due to bandwidth limitations. Recent cost-cutting measures forced him to downgrade his Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS) network to three bonded T1 links for 4.5 Mbps connections at AVST's offices in California, Washington and London.

We would not pursue [our public cloud] initiative if we didn't have this technology to help improve the traffic flow.

Ben Bailey
Manager of IT Services, AVST

After recently beta testing Cloud Steelhead to evaluate cloud performance gains, Bailey said the transfer rate between his sites and Amazon's cloud appears to be about 10 times faster with the virtual appliance in place. The clear return on investment (ROI) justified AVST's move to the public cloud, Bailey said.

"We would not pursue [our public cloud] initiative if we didn't have this technology to help improve the traffic flow," he said. "If we were spending $5,000 a month on an MPLS solution and we no longer have to spend that, that's offsetting the cost of using cloud-based [WAN optimization]."

Cloud performance will have to be "at least close to what it is in the non-cloud environment" for enterprises to be comfortable going to the cloud, according to Zeus Kerravala, senior vice president and distinguished research fellow at Yankee Group.

"With the traditional Steelhead, people describe it as network crack. After they use it, they never want to run a network without it again," Kerravala said. "I think [Cloud Steelhead] will become [as addictive] for the cloud."

Cloud performance gains not only factor to consider

Visibility and control are going to be critical for cloud providers and WAN optimization vendors to gain enterprises' trust in the technology's ability to improve cloud performance, according to Alfaro, who uses Steelhead appliances throughout his company's 40 global locations. He has neither tested nor used Cloud Steelhead.

Alfaro watched one enterprise learn about the importance of visibility into optimized traffic the hard way. At a previous job, Alfaro said the networking team deployed a WAN optimization appliance across the WAN without getting too granular in the configuration settings. Users who had been transferring copies of pirated mp3 files between remote offices took advantage of the performance boost for file transfers, he said. IT wasn't exactly thrilled.

"You need to know what's going on, and you need to be able to control it. It's nice that the system lets you automatically plug it in and optimizes [traffic] for you, but you need to tune it, and you need to make sure you're optimizing the right thing," Alfaro said.

"IT is going to have a problem with [cloud-based WAN optimization]. They're going to take a look at it and say, 'We're going to optimize everything.' No, you don't -- you don't do it now when you run [quality of service] QoS across your network," he added. "That same level of visibility and control is going to be important to put this into the cloud."

Cloud providers and WAN optimization vendors offering cloud performance boosts must also address operating system version discrepancies between customer and providers' appliances, Alfaro said. An enterprise with an older version of an operating system might suddenly find its cloud performance crippled if a cloud provider or vendor does a major upgrade to the cloud-based appliance, he said. 

"All of us know that just because they have the same logo on their boxes doesn't mean they're necessarily going to talk to each other," he said. "If you're really going to be the optimizer for the cloud, this has to be a core feature within your product."

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

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