The Riverbed Blog (testing)

A blog in search of a tagline

Are all WOCs made alike?

Posted by riverbedtest on August 17, 2009

WAN optimization vendors seem to be saying the same things.  They all seem to be making claims of 50X performance improvement.  They all seem to talk about how users can benefit from LAN-like performance.  They all seem to claim that their products facilitate server consolidation and data center elimination.  As a concrete example, below are two graphs taken from marketing materials published by two competing WAN optimization vendors.  The first graph was originally published by Riverbed in 2005.  The second graph is from Blue Coat, and it is dated from 2007.  As you can see, there are some striking similarities in the claims by each vendor.

RVBD 

BC 

The central goal of vendors such as Blue Coat who mimic Riverbed's messaging is to make their products appear to be same as the Riverbed solution.  And by using carefully-controlled testing procedures in isolated lab environments, they often can generate performance results that appear to be Riverbed-like. 

But the fact is that competitive products are very different from the Riverbed Steelhead solution; they were created with very different product architectures, and often were originally designed for entirely different purposes (e.g., web security or file caching).  They also use legacy caching-based or tunneling-based architectures that have been tried many times in the past–with limited success.   In contrast, the Riverbed Steelhead solution uses a unique TCP-proxy approach that is innovative and purpose-built specifically for WAN optimization. 

Differences between Riverbed and competitive products become evident in real-life network environments.  Issues that are never observed in the lab expose themselves when the WOC is subjected to heavy traffic loads and network events that occur in a real-life network.  Typically, these problems are related to scalability issues.  For example in the case of Cisco WAAS and Blue Coat's ProxySG, both products suffer from scaling limitations related to their use of per-peer data stores (see blog Riverbed's Universal Data Store).  This is but one of a number of different scalability issues that commonly surface when the products leave the sheltered environment of the test lab.

Riverbed's competitors would like nothing better than for their prospective customers to limit product evaluations to only simple lab tests, where their scalability issues are not exposed.  To avoid falling into this trap, I would advise the following as part of the evaluation process for any WAN optimization product, to ensure that the scalability of the product is properly investigated:

  • Do not limit your evaluation to just simple lab tests.  Always do pilot testing with the actual products in your production network.  Don't accept excuses from the vendor for not providing you with equipment for a limited time to perform the POC testing.
  • For large networks, the POC should involve multiple sites, certainly more than two. As much as possible, test an environment where multiple branch offices access data through one core data center device.
  • Test a wide variety of different applications that are found in your network, and under heavy traffic loads for both optimized and pass-through traffic.
  • Monitor for negative impacts to non-optimized pass-through traffic.  Be aware that many WOCs gain performance benefits by stealing bandwidth from non-optimized traffic.
  • Find out if the vendor eats their own dogfood.  Does the vendor use their own WOC product at all locations throughout their internal network environment?  If the vendor can't scale their own product in their own network, then how can you expect to in your network?
  • Most importantly, ask the vendor to provide contact information of at least two customers who have deployed the number of WOC devices that you envision for your network, and speak confidentially with those customers about their experiences.  Has the customer realized real $$$ benefit from server and data center consolidation as a result of using the WOC product?

Despite what some vendors would have you believe, the bottom line is that all WOCs are not made alike.  I have met and spoken with a number customers who tragically found this out too late.  Some were distracted by lower prices offered by their originally-selected vendor; others by vendor/brand loyalty.  Each case resulted in many months or years of frustration before Riverbed finally came into the picture.

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