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WAN optimizer form factor differences don't dictate superiority

The WAN optimization Magic Quadrant reveals different WAN optimizer form factors are helping to better match evolving enterprise requirements.

The WAN optimization market is evolving beyond hardware-based appliances as enterprises consider a range of techniques to optimize network traffic. Software-based WAN optimizers and WAN optimization as a Service offerings are on the rise. These new deployment models are challenging the traditional hardware form factor, according to the 2013 WAN optimization Magic Quadrant report by Gartner Research Inc.

Use cases are dictating what kind of WAN optimization deployment model an enterprise adopts, said Joe Skorupa, research vice president at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner and author of the latest Magic Quadrant report.

WAN optimization Magic Quadrant: Hardware rules, but software rises

The latest WAN optimization Magic Quadrant highlighted a number of different form factors and delivery techniques, including Riverbed -- the lone vendor in the leader quadrant -- which offers WAN optimization in hardware and software formats, as well as through its global managed service provider partners. Riverbed sets itself apart with its ability to incorporate its application delivery and network performance products into its WAN optimization technology, Skorupa said.

"[Riverbed] uses Whitewater as a part of its optimization portfolio for dealing with WAN issues for cloud-based backup, and Granite, [its WAN accelerator, for] address[ing] application performance problems that no other WAN optimizer can address," he said.

Enterprises have traditionally preferred hardware WAN optimizers for branch office optimization, but the virtual appliance has carved out a niche spot for itself in data center optimization. Silver Peak, a visionary on this year's WAN optimization Magic Quadrant, champions the use of virtual WAN optimizers and specializes in optimization between data centers. The Santa Clara, Calif.-based vendor is taking advantage of its understanding of the virtual appliance marketplace by announcing a software upgrade program for Riverbed Technology customers.

The program invites any Riverbed customer facing a Steelhead hardware refresh early next year to upgrade to an equivalent Silver Peak software-based WAN optimizer. "Many customers haven't looked at the numbers and understood the economic realities of physical and virtual [WAN optimization appliances]," said Rick Tinsley, CEO for Silver Peak. "It's like buying a car instead of leasing one -- there is a market for both, but in networking, buying on a subscription basis is still a relatively new concept."

Even though the networking industry is moving swiftly to software, virtual deployment models won't be the answer for every customer, Gartner's Skorupa said.

"Silver Peak has demonstrated [a] strong vision in pushing virtual appliances as an alternative deployment model -- it was really hard to get good performance out of a software form factor a few years ago; that's not the case anymore," he said.

WAN optimizer technology: New techniques entering the ring

While vendors have been offering software-based WAN optimizers for the past two years, managed and cloud-based WAN optimization techniques are newer to the market. WAN optimization services may not yet be as proven as hardware and software WAN optimization vendors, but users are starting to see the benefits. They can avoid the cost of hardware investments and also eliminate the cost of managing hardware and software, Gartner's Skorupa said.

The recent WAN optimization Magic Quadrant includes providers of cloud-based WAN optimization for the first time.

"We had to do this because we are seeing some WAN optimization buyers this year decide that managed services were a viable alternative," Skorupa said.

WAN optimization no longer includes a box at each location. "We are recognizing there are other ways of doing this, and new ways of entering the market," he said.

Hardware still maintains relevant placement in WAN optimization market

Just because software and WAN optimization services are starting to grab mindshare doesn't mean hardware is becoming obsolete. There is still plenty of room for physical form factors, said Paul O'Farrell, senior vice president of the Steelhead Products Group for San Francisco-based Riverbed.

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Hardware vs. virtual WAN optimization controllers

"No particular offering will fit all customer use cases or requirements," O'Farrell said. "There are situations where a physical appliance would be more convenient -- like maybe an enterprise doesn't have IT in a branch location -- but a virtual appliance could be appropriate in a data center environment where there [is] IT expertise."

And while a hardware purchase may be more expensive up front, users must also consider the entire cost of a virtual appliance over the lifetime that the product will be deployed, including the server and the hypervisor software needed to run that software-based tool, he said.

Costs aside, some enterprise IT employees will be comfortable with the complexity associated with the management of a virtual WAN optimizer, and others won't, Gartner's Skorupa said.

"Some companies still want to buy boxes," Skorupa said. "Some users don't want the added complexity of do-it-yourself with virtual appliance management."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Gina Narcisi, news writer, and follow @GeeNarcisi on Twitter.

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