Promises gains in performance and scalability in six new appliances. Read why an industry analysts thinks the network equipment maker may have a hit

Cisco overhauls WAN optimization appliances

Five years after introducing its first WAN optimization appliances, Cisco Systems Inc. has overhauled the lineup by upping speed and scalability.

“We are introducing a portfolio of new appliances to deliver high performance and quality of experience for any application in a way that is very simplified for IT to deploy,” said Inbar Lasser-Raab, the company’s senior director of marketing for WAN optimization products.

Cisco claims the most powerful of the six new units, the WAVE 8541, offers 2 gigabits a second through put, twice as fast as any WAN optimizer on the market. It also can handle 150,000 TCP connections, one-third more than any competitor.

All of the new appliances, which range in price from US$6,500 to US$235,000, have two onboard Gigabit Ethernet ports and can be upgraded to 10 GbE. Some models can host eight virtual blades for added services such as network analytics, up from two virtual blades in the previous models.

With the increase of data-heavy applications such as video and machine-to-machine data, optimizing traffic over wide area network is increasingly important, Lasser-Raab said. Not only do organizations want to optimize bandwidth, they also want to optimize the performance of applications like video – particularly if they have virtual desktops.

The new appliances also meet another worry, the ability to scale applications to hundreds of users.

The performance gains in part come from the latest version of the appliances’ software, called Wide Area Application Services (WAAS). Version 4.4 includes what Cisco calls context-aware data redundancy elimination, which Lasser-Rabb said can look for and cache patterns that repeat in an application – say, colours in a PowerPoint slide. When the slide is sent over the network, WAAS points to the cache to retrieve the data.

“That can substantially reduce the traffic,” she said, cutting a 5 GB slide sent over a T-1 connection from 120 seconds to five seconds.

The additional optional virtual blades available on some models allows more services to be integrated with WAN optimization. One of the newest is Cisco’s Enterprise Content Distribution System (ECDS) allows some WAVE appliances to simultaneously stream 400 high-definition videos to 150,000 employee devices, Cisco said.
Cisco hasn’t been known until now as a technology or performance leader in WAN optimization, said Paula Musich, senior analyst for networking and securty products at Current Analysis. That’s changed. “I think context-aware data redundancy elimination will be a hit with customers,” she predicted. The improved scalability also “makes them more competitive in the market.”

Zeus Kerravala, an industry analyst with ZK Research, called the new models a significant upgrade from Cisco’s first generation of WAVE appliances. “It’s a big step forward.”

However, he isn’t sure if the changes will be enough to dislodge WAN optimization market leader Riverbed Technology and its Steelhead appliances. But, he added, “if the features and scalability they have are what they say, that gives them a much better chance.”

Cisco [Nasdaq: CSCO] has several WAN optimization-related products, he said, and need to do a better job of explaining to customers how they tie together. One of Riverbed’s strengths is the ability of the Steelhead appliances to be deployed quickly, Kerravala said customers have told him. It’s an attribute Cisco says it has adopted in the latest WAVE line.

But Riverbed also has great sales and marketing, Kerravala added. “They can go into an enterprise and demonstrate value within 90 minutes. They have great demo, proof of concept kits.”

The new Cisco units are

–the 294, for small branch and remote offices. It supports up to 200 TCP connections (although that’s upgradable to 400), includes a 250 GB hard drive for storage and can host two virtual blades;

–the 594 for small or medium-sized branch offices, which supports up to 750 TCP connections in its standard configuration;

–the 694, which supports up to 2,500 TCP connections (upgradable to 6,000);

–the 7541, which supports up to 18,000 TCP connections. There are optional Gigabit Ethernet SX fibre or 10G modules;

–the 7571, which supports 60,000 TCP connections and also handles optional port modules;

–the 8541, which supports 150,000 TCP connections.

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