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How did Cisco win Best of Interop for performance optimization?

Cisco won Best of Interop 2012 for its AppNav Virtualization Technology, but that may say more about how it marketed the product than its quality. Who knows for sure?

How did Cisco's AppNav Virtualization Technology win Best of Interop for performance optimization? Honestly. How? According to the Best of Interop rules, a product must be publicly available at the show to be considered for the award. While Cisco technically had AppNav at the show, for many vendors at Interop 2012 -- especially for runners-up who had products in that category on display, like Citrix's NetScaler 10 and Riverbed's Steelhead Cloud Accelerator -- a point of contention is whether it was really "publicly available."

Only potential Cisco customers for AppNav who signed a non-disclosure agreement could see the product at the show. Personally, I question whether that should be considered "publicly available" under Interop's own rules.

Riverbed, Cisco's runner-up for the award, was less than pleased. "Maybe [Cisco] should have won a different award [like] 'Best PowerPoint presentation about a product that might be demonstrated someday at Interop,'" Alan Saldich, VP of product marketing at Riverbed, wrote in a Riverbed Blog post ("FUD the WAAS way") in response to Cisco's win.

Another frustration among vendors and attendees surrounding Cisco's win was that its new AppNav product wasn't announced before or during the show.

The Best of Interop rules say, "Eligible products must have been announced on or after January 1, 2012, and available for purchase by September 1, 2012." I won't know until September 1 whether Cisco's AppNav product meets those requirements. To be fair, many awards programs have similar product announcement rules, so this isn't unique. It's just, well, frustrating -- especially for competitors who see the Best of Interop 2012 award listed on Cisco's WAAS website and don't know what it's really for. 

And what do we know about the winning product? Cisco could only tell me that AppNav will be an added feature on top of Cisco's Wide Area Application Services (WAAS) software. On the other hand, the judges for the performance optimization category did discuss the choice on the InformationWeek website.

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Any vendor with an Interop booth can enter Best of Interop. Roughly 180 to 200 product announcements are submitted among 10 categories. A pair of judges -- an expert in the field and an in-the-trenches technical guru -- go through the submissions and choose the three top winners, whom they then interview.

Vice president and director of InformationWeek Reports Art Wittmann explained to me at the show that the product entries must be announced and demoed at the show, though he added that hadn't been strictly enforced in previous years.

It looks like it may not have been strictly enforced this year either, depending on your definition of publicly announced products. The Best of Interop site states: "Eligible products … must be available for public viewing at Interop 2012 Las Vegas."

What about Cisco's performance optimization technology?

Best of Interop rules aside, I will be surprised if Cisco's AppNav will be something worth writing home about. Cisco WAAS technology has never been leading edge. Other vendors in the performance optimization market are thinking ahead by incorporating WAN optimization 2.0 features, like visibility, into their products. Blue Coat Systems, for example, has added application visibility into its product line; Talari Networks can make broadband more reliable using its WAN aggregation technology; Ipanema Technologies' products make networks "self-healing"; and Silver Peak can optimize any application by accelerating the network layer -- all fairly forward-thinking ideas. What exactly is Cisco’s secret?

"Cisco's WAAS Central Manager could manage and report on multiple WAAS instances through a single management server, allowing administrators to configure, set policy, and monitor WAAS appliances," Best of Interop performance optimization judge Mike Fratto wrote in his description of the AppNav win. But this Central Manager sounds like what Riverbed announced with its Granite device -- not to mention Ipanema's autonomic networking feature.

Of course, some of the vendors I mentioned previously didn't submit products for Best of Interop. Silver Peak and Ipanema didn't have an announcement for the show, so they couldn't compete. That's an open-and-shut case. But what about Riverbed -- a forerunner in the WAN optimization space?

At the end of his Cisco AppNav description, Fratto wrote, "Riverbed's Steelhead Cloud Accelerator was also a strong contender in this category, but lack of support in Steelhead Mobile knocked it out of the running."

Given that major Interop themes this year included BYOD, mobility and consumerization, maybe mobile features were weighted more heavily. Maybe Cisco does have a leg up on Riverbed and Citrix in mobile WAN optimization. Without knowing more about AppNav, there's no way I can have a solid opinion. But the traditional WAN optimization techniques that Cisco has typically used -- caching and deduplication -- are old hat. The SaaS-optimization techniques Riverbed and Citrix have presented seem more technically advanced and impressive -- especially when the business case for cloud-based applications is much more solid than the business case for BYOD in enterprises.

Cisco's competitors were understandably perturbed about the win. I flew back to the office wondering how heavily IT pros and investors will weigh this Best of Interop win. Like many other awards of this type, these products were not tested (testing is not required in the judging process) and cannot be an indication of which particular product to buy. They are based on the theory behind a product. It's up to an IT professional to follow through in testing a product with their network before purchasing and deploying the new product.

If anything, it seems the Best of Interop award goes out to the vendor that can deliver the best message about the product, not the product itself. And is that sending the right message?

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