Orbital Data has claimed an industry first for a software-only WAN application accelerator.

Running on Windows at $100 a seat, OrbitalEdge works with a data centre appliance over any WAN connection to increase data throughput, decrease latency and add data encryption.

"We've been running it on remote sites in Canada and Norway," said David Moran, a director at drill supplier Smith Bits, which has field-tested OrbitalEdge. "It reduces eight-second delays over satellite to more like two seconds. It's really a latency benefit, but the encryption also takes care of a lot of issues."

Until now, application acceleration of the type sold by Expand, Juniper (formerly Peribit), Packeteer, Orbital Data and others has required a box at each end of the link to handle data compression, TCP acceleration and application optimisation, and the cost of that means it's not worth it for small sites.

A couple of companies have developed smaller WAN appliances to address branch office needs - for example Riverbed and Swan Labs (now part of F5) - but a $2,000 box is still too expensive for an individual home worker or road warrior. Some have even discussed the possibility of building that functionality into a home broadband router, but that has not yet come to anything.

So now Orbital has come up with a software client - you still need an Orbital 7300 appliance at head office, but each remote PC does its share of the work itself.

The PC technology was acquired by Orbital when it bought Jibe Networks - Jibe's co-founder and CEO Dan Decasper is now Orbital's chief technology officer. "We use many of the same techniques as if you had an appliance at both ends," Decasper said, adding that while a PC would be unable to take on the full workload of a WAN appliance, it is more than capable of handling its own share of the load.

"The load on the end-point is proportional to the throughput, and on the PC you only have to terminate one client at a time," he explained. "Our goal is to make your application work faster, otherwise it defeats the purpose - and you can do that on a Pentium 4 or high-end P3."

Smith Bits' Moran agreed that the improved performance given by OrbitalEdge more than outweighed the extra load on the PC from the software. "We are definitely seeing a benefit from Orbital's auto-optimisation too, as it can use different algorithms for different data types."

"The initial release is for Windows only, it runs as a background service," Decasper said. "We want to make it portable though, so we will have versions for Mac, Linux, Solaris, Windows Mobile and so on." He added that he's already running an early version on his Mac.

He said that the next challenge is managing all those clients, so the system also includes software for centralised and automated device management. "The complexity increases exponentially with the number of locations managed, so you need automation," he said.

Each appliance is specified to support 500 remote users, but Decasper said that the design also allows up to 200 appliances to be clustered - though he acknowledged that he doesn't expect to see a 100,000 user deployment just yet. He said a complete system costs from $50,000, including the data centre box, 500 OrbitalEdge licences, and the management software.

OrbitalEdge fills a big gap in the market, according to Matthias Machowinski, directing analyst at Infonetics Research. "Current WAN acceleration solutions have focused on site-to-site optimisation for large sites only, leaving much of the remote user base under-served," he said. "By extending the benefits of WAN acceleration to all users throughout the enterprise, Orbital Data is redefining the WAN acceleration category."