WAN optimisation appliances from such companies as Packeteer, Riverbed Technology and Silver Peak Systems have been instant industry darlings, surging to the top of enterprise priority lists with their speedy, performance-improving results and quantifiable ROI. By combining such technologies as compression, caching, wide area file services, TCP optimisation and SSL acceleration, these devices have made doing business over the WAN not only tolerable but in many cases preferable.

Now vendors are hoping for follow-on hits with product improvements in client-side acceleration, network security and performance management.

Managing while optimising

Performance-management technologies are becoming the add-on of choice for many optimisation vendors looking to maximise the functions of their appliances. Coupling management capabilities and optimisation lets network administrators use the reams of traffic and application data collected by acceleration tools to troubleshoot problems and identify areas in need of a performance overhaul.

For instance, when the network team at Rawlings Sporting Goods in St Louis needed to figure out why the performance of a web-based customer order application was suffering, it turned to a WAN optimisation appliance from Packeteer rather than rely on traditional network monitoring software. Packeteer's PacketShaper used a variety of techniques to speed traffic across the WAN and provided insight into performance problems, say Jack Matthews, director of MIS, and Richard Truex, manager of network operations.

PacketShaper technology analysed traffic, found bandwidth hogs and helped the Rawlings network team manage bandwidth consumption. With Packeteer the team determined what type of traffic could traverse the net, and created policies to throttle down application packets that weren't mission-critical in favour of those deemed essential to the business.

"Rather than buying network taps and sniffer probes, and having to take all that data and do the analysis ourselves, we bought PacketShaper," Truex says. Using WAN optimisation "immediately puts you in a proactive mode, because once the issue is identified, you can go into the appliance and create a policy to prevent the problem from happening again," he adds.

Rawlings also uses PacketShaper to make sure it doesn't exceed its allocated share of its service provider's DS-3 line and to monitor QoS on VoIP calls. "PacketShaper is a management tool, a network analyser tool and an optimisation tool. It allows us to improve the quality of our network applications without spending more money than we had planned," Matthews says.

Industry watchers say companies should expect other vendors to provide systems management capabilities in concert with optimisation tools. For instance, Citrix Systems acquired application acceleration vendor NetScaler and Reflectent Software, a maker of client-side performance management software. Combined, the products could provide performance improvements and real-time measurement, analysts say.

Citrix already has integrated Reflectent with its Presentation Server product and plans to continue working toward delivering optimised applications to user machines.

Examples of vendors planning to pin together management and optimisation include Radware, through its acquisition of Covelight Systems. Covelight's Inflight product captures transactional data related to business events in real time, including user identity and session information. Radware says the merging of its technology with Covelight's could help network managers respond to performance and security issues more quickly. For instance, if a web transaction deviated from normal in a way that indicated fraud was taking place, the network could be instructed to sever that transaction.

F5 Networks is planning to license Microsoft's System Operation Centre in its F5 ControlPoint Management appliance. The F5 product, the two vendors say, will collect, analyse and report data from F5's portfolio of application optimisation, availability and security devices using Microsoft management technology.

"Once you distribute the WAN optimisation technology, there is no reason why you shouldn't be able to use it as probes to report back to you in real time about end-to-end application performance," says Robert Whiteley, a senior analyst with Forrester Research.

Considering the client

Next up for companies whose appliances already sit in data centres and branch offices will be optimisation software for installation on client machines. These include Blue Coat Systems, Expand Networks, Packeteer and Stampede Technologies. "We are going to see a lot of activity around client-based code in the second half of this year," says Joe Skorupa, a research director at Gartner. "Nomadic employees need the acceleration just as much as those in a remote office, so they need that code on their machines."

This client software would be a peer to a branch-office appliance and communicate with the data-centre appliance serving as the central management device. A client machine in a branch office would rely on the appliance there to perform optimisation tasks. If the client machine is in a home or at a hotel kiosk, the optimisation software would kick in and apply the technologies needed to ramp up performance for the remote user.

WAN optimisation turf war

In some cases, customers can choose to add the software only to certain client machines -- those of the travelling sales staff, for example -- and not use an optimisation appliance at a remote sales office. This option could appeal to IT administrators who are overseeing small offices with a handful of staff and can't always justify the $3,000 to $5,000 for an appliance.

In other cases, the optimisation software would not need to be preloaded on client machines. For instance, Blue Coat plans to offer acceleration software on demand, via a small code download, to remote users when they log on to the corporate network through a VPN. And Citrix announced a software-based acceleration client expected to be available this summer. The company claims it will deliver the first interoperable WAN optimisation and SSL VPN product set with its Citrix Access Gateway integration.

Zeus Kerravala, a research vice president at Yankee Group, says he likes the idea of client-side optimisation. "For mobile employees, the big unknown is bandwidth. This client software will deliver performance without employees having to figure out the best way to work with their applications while on the road," he says.