In another life and another time, I ran the network testing program at PC Magazine. Back then, Mag (as it was called) evaluated application and device performance primarily on 10Mbps (gasp) or later a 100Mbps Ethernet link -- pretty much the state of the art then. Today, local application performance still holds some interest, but it's the end-to-end performance of networked devices and applications across the WAN and in hybrid clouds that defines the user experience. New approaches are emerging that address this problem.
Hybrid clouds are particularly challenging because in order to accelerate hybrid clouds one needs to locate a WAN optimization appliance within the vendor's data center - not something that's likely to happen for most users. (I'm not going to touch one-sided acceleration aka Web caching. It's fine for static content, but where content is dynamic one-sided acceleration won't help much.)
Precisely because hybrid clouds are so vexing, Akamai and Riverbed inked a technology partnership in May. Once product is delivered, sometime in the beginning of next year, instead of locating a Riverbed appliance within a cloud provider's data center, the vendor will be able to deliver their content over the Akamai network and have it accelerated over the last mile with Riverbed's appliances.
A second approach, though, is emerging that leverages the advances in virtualization and the plethora of processing and memory available in existing network equipment. This approach, which I'll call Embedded Optimization, puts WAN optimization within any existing networking equipment not just one vendor's appliances or services. As long as they can run a hypervisor, such as VMWare, KVM or Hyper-V, Embedded Optimization can run within the device.
Probably the best example of this approach was announced today by Silver Peak with its Virtual Acceleration Open Architecture (VXOA). Avaya has already announced that with VXOA, WAN optimization will be embedded within its Secure Router 4134. In truth, though, you can find elements of this approach from other virtualized WAN optimization suppliers, such as Certeon. (Full Disclosure: Silver Peak is a customer of mine, but really, if you know someone else out there with anything comparable to VXOA, let me know and I'll gladly write about it here.)
Embedded Optimization enables service provider to deliver premium performing services without deploying new hardware. They can turn existing server platforms into WAN optimizers. What's more, as virtual appliances, those services are dynamic. They can be added or dropped as needed allowing the service provider to deliver optimized services to accommodate for flash conditions and then return the line back to normal service afterwards. Coupled with subscription based pricing, commonly used in cloud services, and Embedded Optimization is a natural complement to cloud deployment.
Device vendors benefit because Embedded Optimization gives them a competitive advantage. Storage vendors can show 3x improvement in cloud storage performance. The same goes for remote backup where IT can radically reduce storage times by using an embedded WAN optimizer. VoIP server may not benefit from acceleration much, voice CODECs are already compressed, but their voice quality can be improved. WAN optimizers, like those for Silver Peak, can reduce the packet loss that can yield poor voice quality.
From the perspective of the IT customer, embedding the WAN optimizer within the device also offers a number of benefits. For one, troubleshooting and maintenance is simpler because there's only one device to maintain and IT knows that WAN optimizer has been pretested and configured to work with the specific device. This last point is important. Vendors can simplify configuration by preselecting the specific parameters just right for their devices. In this way, IT can be assured of getting the maximum performance out of their optimizer.
Leveraging the power of a CDN, such as Akamai, is powerful move for WAN optimization, but with virtualization organizations can also avoid deploying a physical appliance in a vendor's data center and do so today. It will be interesting to see which approach wins out.