Cisco faces competition over WAN optimisation

Rival Riverbed technologies has announced enhancements to its product range that could force Cisco to play catch-up

Cisco could face a tougher battle when it comes to selling companies kit to help them optimise wide area networks after one of its main competitors released a raft of upgrades to its flagship operating system.

Networking specialist Riverbed announced on Monday that it had developed enhancements around the new release of its operating system, which is called RiOS 5.0. One of the key additions is the fact that Riverbed's WAN optimisation controller, called the Steelhead, is now able to optimise Microsoft Exchange 2007 traffic.

Riverbed claims that Office 2007-based email traffic can now be delivered in one-tenth of the time but, as with all WAN optimisation technologies, that figure depends on bandwidth utilisation and the type of data being sent.

Riverbed is also trying to accelerate HTTP traffic, which could be useful for remote workers using web-based applications.

The company offers a software client that can be downloaded to a remote worker's notebook and stores a multitude of information used by the individual's web browser. This includes images, scripts and other embedded objects. It carries out the caching instead of the browser, cutting down on the requests the browser would otherwise send over the network.

WAN optimisation is one of the few of network technologies in which Cisco does not have a commanding lead.

The router behemoth distanced itself for several years from WAN optimisation technologies, arguing that they were unnecessary, and only started releasing such products in 2006.

WAN optimisation is the generic name for a group of technologies that helps companies reduce the amount of traffic passing across their wide area network. The reduction is achieved by a number of techniques, including caching and reducing the number of TCP roundtrips. The products that handle the reduction are appliances that are often called WAN Optimisation Controllers.

Mark Fabbi, vice president for enterprise communications at analyst firm Gartner, said he saw key benefits in WAN optimisation."There is a pretty big demand for this type of technology. WAN optimisation today solves branch office [bandwidth] problems," he said.

But Fabbi warned that Cisco was lagging behind in its developments. "Cisco doesn't understand the nuances of applications like other vendors. You should never presume or buy Cisco kit by default. They tend to downplay requirements [for WAN optimisation] in the marketplace."

In contrast, Fabbi said that a number of companies had shown a pioneering attitude to developing the technology. These include Juniper (a smaller networking vendor that has acquired many products through acquisitions), BlueCoat Systems, Expand Networks and Riverbed.

"They have executed very well and have products that work out-of-the-box," Fabbi said about the four companies.

Riverbed has also said it wants to open its Steelhead platform for companies to develop related services. This could include print services, DNS, DHCP and security, according to the company's European director of marketing Mark Lewis, who said there would be major announcements forthcoming in the area. "This is the golden nugget," he said.

Riverbed has been keen to prove its security credentials, which is important given that data packets must be unencrypted as they pass through the WAN optimisation controller.

ICSA Labs, a US firm that certifies the security of many well-known network products, said on Wednesday that the Steelhead appliance was "not vulnerable to exploitation or attack" and that it "does not introduce other vulnerabilities to the existing network".

In a separate announcement on Thursday, an international shipping company said it hoped to cut the quantity of hardware that it uses by 85 percent, by implementing WAN optimisation.

Inchcape Shipping Services operates from 200 ports around the world, with bandwidth as low as 128Kbps in some ports. It is trying to consolidate most of its applications into a UK-based data centre, which will mean that servers can be removed from the majority of its ports, to be replaced with just a router. It has chosen Cisco for the WAN optimisation technology.

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