WAN optimization: Better than a 'real' upgrade?

Compression, caching and de-duplication can boost performance without actually increasing the speed of the network

Hosted or in-house?

One decision facing IT managers is whether to use in-house WAN optimization appliances that sit on the internal side of the routers in the data center, or appliances that sit just outside of the company walls -- operated by a managed services provider such as AT&T, Orange, Vanco, BT Global Services or Verizon.

Interestingly, the exact same appliances -- such as the Riverbed Steelhead -- are often used in-house and by service providers. One advantage of service-provided optimization is a lessened management burden. According to Gartner's Skorupa, many companies choose a service provider because they can't keep pace with changes in application development techniques, ERP releases and security, for example. The WAN optimization appliance itself may need regular updates as well.

Yet a managed service isn't always the best solution. Activision decided to use an in-house Riverbed appliance because it could easily switch carriers -- depending on who has the best plan and offers the best speed for its offices.

If Activision switches to a carrier that doesn't offer optimization, its strategy doesn't have to change. The company can pick carriers by speed and price, not optimization services.

In some markets, such as health and finance, a managed provider isn't a good option for another reason: Because data is optimized in an unencrypted state, privacy and security concerns arise. But vendors such as Riverbed, Juniper Networks and Blue Coat Systems can serve as a trusted "man in the middle" for optimizing data encrypted with SSL, which is commonly used in applications with Web interfaces and other Internet traffic. They terminate the encrypted session, decrypt, optimize and then re-encrypt and forward the traffic. Skorupa said most vendors are developing this useful capability.

In the end, WAN optimizing is here to stay as a long-term solution that is still proving its value, observers say. More and more enterprises are consolidating their data centers, so network speed is a critical factor. Whether in-house or managed through a service, experts say the compression techniques will only get better -- and the results will pay dividends for IT executives on a mission to run smoother operations.

John Brandon is a freelance writer and book author who worked as an IT manager for 10 years.

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