BlueCoat Reflects WOC Market Shifts

The divide in the WAN optimization market between “compressors/cachers/accelerators” and “packet shapers/monitors” has crumbled in recent months following a spate of acquisitions and market consolidation.

A good example of this is California-based Blue Coat Systems, a leading member of the first category which acquired Packeteer, one of the technologically most sophisticated members of the second, in a deal worth about $270 million twelve months ago.

It’s part of a growing realization by companies offering devices which optimize data flows over wide area networks (WANs)— using techniques including compressing data, caching it locally, and modifying the way TCP and application layer traffic travels to avoid slow connections—that their customers also need to see and control what travels over their networks to be able to use their bandwidth-limited WAN links to the full.

“Customers need to be able to see their mission critical apps on their wide area network and measure their performance,” says Mark Urban, Blue Coat’s product marketing manager. “We asked ourselves how we could provide visibility to our customers – that’s what drove the Packeteer purchase.”

Packeteer might have argued in the past that by using its PacketShaper product to identify and choke off unwanted peer-to-peer apps staff might be using, and by reserving bandwidth for particular applications and prioritizing real-time traffic using QoS tags, there was little need for the type of WOC devices that are the lifeblood of Blue Coat. But Urban, predictably, disagrees. “There is no doubt that shaping by itself is not enough in today’s circumstances,” he asserts.

He points out that packet shaping can do nothing to speed up traffic using CIFS or MAPI protocols which are by their nature very chatty and send large amounts of data back and forth across a WAN before getting anything useful done. “These protocols have a lot of performance constraints when running over a wide area network which have nothing to do with bandwidth,” Urban says.

He adds that the amount of traffic that organizations want to send over their wide area networks has increased enormously over the past few years, thanks to initiatives to centralize servers in data centers and activities like video training. “Even if you are smart and are using software to monitor and limit recreational use of bandwidth by staff, these sorts of activities rip any reasonable bandwidth cost structure apart,” he says. “So there is a need for caching devices to reduce the amount of traffic that is using the WAN as well as packet shaping software to free up the bandwidth that is actually available.”

WOCs Come Full Circle

Another interesting phenomenon that Urban highlights is that the market for WOCs seems to have come a full circle: three or four years ago the drive was toward accelerating applications delivered over the Web, and http and https optimization. But following the data consolidation projects that many organizations carried out over the last few years demand grew for CIFS, MAPI and TCP acceleration for file transfers, email and backup at remote sites.

“Now what’s happening is that the latest iteration of apps are using web or SLL delivery,” he says. “Look at Exchange 2007 – that can be delivered over http or https. And SAP and Oracle have been webified, as has file management and email. So what’s driving demand now is internal Web/SSL apps and external SAAS apps delivered over the Web. Everything is moving to Web/SSL delivery.”

Initiatives such as VDI (virtual desktop infrastructure) also spell good news for companies like Blue Coat which now cover both sides of the market— compression/caching/acceleration and monitoring/packet shaping. That’s because VDI is made up of two components. The first component is the common screens that many users experience, he says. “These really lend themselves to caching.”

The second component is the small chunks of data that have to be sent over the WAN every time a user moves their mouse. “These bits of data have to be echoed down the line to the data center, and then back to the user. They are very QoS focused as screen refreshes have to be very quick if the experience is to be acceptable. So as well as caching technology you need to have packet shaping and QoS technology, ” Urban says.

If Urban is correct then it’s likely that many Blue Coat customers will benefit from both sides of its business, so it’s perhaps not surprising that the medium term plan is for the Packeteer PacketShaper technology to be integrated into some of Blue Coat’s ProxySG range of WOCs. But until that happens, Blue Coat offers two relevant ranges:

ProxySG Appliances

Blue Coat currently offers four Proxy SG WOC appliances, ranging from the 210 range for small branch offices at the low end (from $2,9950) to the 8100 range for corporate data centers at the top end (from $50,000.) All offer :

  • Proxy functionality
  • Protection from spyware and other types of attacks
  • Compression, byte caching and object caching to reduce bandwidth requirements
  • Application acceleration for files, e-mail, Web, SSL and rich media applications

PacketShaper Appliances

The company’s five PacketShaper appliances range from the 900 (from $2,500,) with a maximum throughput of 2Mpbs, to the 10000 (from $36,000,) which can handle up to 1Gbps. All can identify over 600 applications running over the network by identify their packets, and can monitor and control the amount of bandwidth individual applications are taking up using QoS controls. Real time applications like VoIP can be optimized using the same technique. The product also offers centralized reporting of WAN usage.

Paul Rubens
Paul Rubens
Paul Rubens is a technology journalist specializing in enterprise networking, security, storage, and virtualization. He has worked for international publications including The Financial Times, BBC, and The Economist, and is now based near Oxford, U.K. When not writing about technology Paul can usually be found playing or restoring pinball machines.
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