A battle is looming over WAN optimisation, as Packeteer adds compression software to its products and claims a 10-fold increase in bandwidth.

The new software, added to its PacketShaper management devices, puts the company head-to-head with Cisco's router compression and with WAN traffic management specialists such as Peribit and Expand.

The CNA compression algorithms will, in reality, only provide a gain of 30 to 50 percent, said Packeteer's European marketing director Roger Hockaday, but that should be enough to get people thinking. "Compression solutions in isolation are simply throwing bandwidth at the problem of application performance," Hockaday said. "Business applications like CRM and ERP are very well behaved, it's applications such as database replication, email, FTP or even Internet radio that typically use as much bandwidth as they can."

PacketShaper allows bandwidth to be allocated to specific applications, for example to prevent Web browsing from hogging capacity required by more important software such as SAP or Oracle. However, adding compression requires a box at each end of every link, increasing the cost of an installation from perhaps £9,000 to three or four times that.

The company's competitors are not so enamoured. "Packeteer is playing catch-up in the broader WAN optimisation category," Steve Wastie, Peribit's international marketing director, told us. He argued that bandwidth allocation is too blunt a tool by comparison with prioritising the application traffic on the network.

Plus, quality of service (QoS) is not enough on its own - you also need to increase bandwidth, decrease latency, and make it all simple to install and manage, he explained. However, Hockaday argues that bandwidth allocation deals better with the unknown than does queuing. "It is a technically complex argument," he says. "Packeteer focuses on the importance of identifying applications and stopping, or reducing, the impact of unsanctioned or less important applications upon critical applications.

"Even if a vendor has got detailed classification ability and are able to map each individual application into its own unique queue - unscalable obviously - prioritising traffic by queuing still adds unpredictable latency to the traffic and cannot provide deterministic or consistent performance."

"Packeteer has been very focused on QoS," he says. "But QoS on its own is a zero-sum game. For example, if you prioritise one app then another will lose out, and it can become incredibly complex."

However, Hockaday says that compression and packet shaping are natural bedfellows: "Our point is that if you contain applications which consume bandwidth and then compress traffic when necessary, you ensure that the additional bandwidth goes to the applications you want it to, not just the greedy ones."

And his customers seem to agree. The Benelux division of pharmaceutical giant Schering says it has saved around 60 percent on bandwidth costs since deploying a Packeteer system with compression.

"Packeteer's application traffic management let us know what was running on our network, helps us avoid bandwidth costs by compressing traffic, and lets us ensure that each of our mission-critical applications gets the bandwidth it needs," said Sander Grout, a Schering network engineer. "It's the single best network investment we've made."