The need to improve application response times is just one of the factors driving the WAN optimization market, which grew out of the old wide-area file services (WAFS) sector. Interest is currently being stoked by the following IT trends, each of which is inexorably linked to both network and storage systems.

  • Storing remote-office data in the main data center

  • Increased use of collaborative applications

  • Business continuity: Failing over from one data center to another means moving multigigabyte chunks of data across a WAN
Robert Whiteley, principal analyst and research director for the IT infrastructure and operations team at Cambridge, MA-based Forrester Research Inc., says many companies are seeing a direct impact on their storage systems as they become more geographically dispersed and dependent on high-performance WANs.

"The standard approach [to accommodating increased WAN use] is to overprovision the amount of bandwidth you need," he says. But purchasing more bandwidth can be very expensive. According to Whiteley, a company with an international E3 line going into Bangalore, India, for example, might pay up to $40,000 each month for a private link. But WAN optimization products, for a fraction of that cost, reduce bandwidth costs by

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reserving bandwidth for priority traffic and using data-reduction technologies.

"The bad news is that [WAN optimization] is still a nascent technology, so it comes with limitations," says Whiteley. These products require plenty of initial testing and careful deployment to avoid problems with reliability and scalability, he adds. "You can't just pick the vendor you have the best relationship with or the one with the best price." (See "What to test," below.)

What to test
Before getting sidetracked by throughput, beware of some of the potential pitfalls of buying a WAN optimization product that you haven't tested thoroughly.

Scalability: As your WAN traffic grows, how scalable is the optimization appliance? How costly and difficult is it to scale? How many protocols does the appliance handle?

Security: How does the vendor secure its appliance? Does your WAN optimizer need to accelerate Secure Sockets Layer (SSL)-encrypted traffic?

Backing up the box: Do you need a redundant device in your main data center? What happens if a box fails?

Visibility: What level of performance is the WAN optimization box delivering during different times of day, for different applications and to how many users? In other words, how is the remote-office user experience?

This was first published in September 2008

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