Why Hardware-based WANs Are Obsolete

Hardware solutions are costly and time-consuming. Is it time you moved to a software solution?

By Donato Buccella, Chief Technology Officer, Certeon

In the way so many other technology solutions have already done, it's time for WAN optimization to migrate away from hardware. The market demand for software-based WAN solutions is indisputable; Gartner shows spending for such application acceleration equipment grew 10.6 percent to $801.3 million in 4Q10 compared with 3Q10. What's more, a recent survey by Silicon Valley research firm TechValidate shows an 88 percent preference for software-based WAN solutions. With numbers like this, it's bewildering that a market for hardware-based WAN solutions still exists.

What's driving this demand for software? Mostly, it's the same things that created a groundswell movement away from hardware across the entire tech sector – flexibility, scalability, performance, and affordability. But, for WAN optimization, there are some additional considerations that greatly tilt the scales in software's favor.

Remote Data Access Trends

Today's computing environment is transitioning into remote data access – users are more mobile than ever, on the road, telecommuting or working from home as opposed to working in the office. GigaOM recently noted that, for public sector IT departments alone, remote-working levels are expected to increase in the U.S. by 65 percent over the next three years. One of the most important aspects of working off-site is having access to files and applications, such as SharePoint or MOSS. However, many people's remote location connections, especially if using a 3G wireless connection, don't compare to the bandwidth or capacity of an enterprise LAN to make remote access to such applications usable. In our high-speed society, when files take 20 or even 30 seconds to download, the frustration caused by latency is often not worth the hassle.

This is where WAN optimization comes into play. WAN optimization delivers a local experience, breaking down the distance between the application and the end user, making the most of the available connection. It helps organizations ensure they are providing fast and secure data transfer for any user accessing any application, on any device, across any network.

As this remote-working trend escalates, the key is being able to implement a WAN optimization solution quickly at minimal cost to the company. With a software-based solution, the entire installation can be completed in minutes because it simply requires the click of a button to install at each remote site. With a hardware-based solution, on the other hand, a company would need to ship a physical appliance to each location, which is costly and requires an engineer to cable and install the appliance to get the hardware running correctly, which can often take days (if not weeks) to complete.

Cloudy Outlook

Beyond remote-working trends, the other major shift for IT that impacts the need for software-based WAN optimization solutions is the transition to the cloud. A recent survey from Electric Cloud found that one in five organizations is already using public cloud computing, and Gartner predicts the cloud will be a $148.8 billion industry by 2014. The numbers don't lie; cloud computing is taking off, and right by its side are software-based products and services.

Simply put, hardware has no place in the cloud. It's unrealistic for companies to deploy a hardware appliance in an environment that uses a highly consolidated virtual infrastructure or where there is no place to even plug in a piece of foreign hardware. Cloud computing offers the ability to scale up and down services at will, and the instant deployment of software products is aligned to deliver such business advantages. Many organizations are confined by hardware infrastructure that is both costly and resistant to change. With software components, however, companies can take advantage of the agility of the cloud and all its cost savings.

Software WAN solutions provide companies with superior performance and seamless upgrades across a variety of environments, instead of the time-consuming, hardware refreshes, that negatively impact both availability rates and capacity. In a nutshell, software can accommodate this more cost-effective system and hardware can't. Furthermore, with the additional scalability and flexibility software solutions present, forgoing hardware is practically a no-brainer.

Scalability and Flexibility

The increasing demand for cloud computing infrastructure requires more massive scalability and flexibility that hardware WAN solutions cannot provide. Simply porting hardware to a virtual machine and calling it scalable, as many legacy hardware providers are doing, will no longer suffice. The fundamental premise of enterprise virtualization and cloud computing is to decouple physical computing resources and application software. The concept of a solution that requires shipping and deploying specialized, proprietary hardware is incompatible with all the precepts of cloud computing.

As large enterprises virtualize and consolidate servers and applications to centralized data centers or cloud providers, they increase the number of remote users who connect over WAN links or the Internet. Hardware-based solutions can only "scale out" by adding several pieces of proprietary hardware to support a given workload. This is both impractical and more expensive. Software-based WAN optimization solutions are designed to both "scale up" and "scale out," giving them the ability to handle any kind of load by utilizing standard hardware or cloud compute resources.

Software-based WAN optimization solutions are ideal for enterprise, public, and private cloud environments because they can run on any hypervisor or natively on any other hardware abstraction layers offered by cloud providers. Software-based solutions can be automatically deployed anywhere by just a download, thereby eliminating typical shipping, racking, and stacking processes. They are also provisioned for a large range of use cases from the very small (as on a smartphone) to the very large (as in a large data center via a remote management console).

For cloud service providers in particular, software enables them to massively scale using the infrastructure they already have in place, decreasing their investment in new hardware. In short, companies will be able to reduce the complexity marked by hardware-based technologies by utilizing the significantly more cost-effective, software-based solutions.

Software Moves Ahead

In the last several years, the tech sector has largely weaned off its dependence on hardware-based solutions to more fully embrace software-based technologies. As the move from hardware appliances to software remains a major IT trend in 2011 (and beyond), software-based WAN optimization solutions will help keep business operations running smoothly with fast, reliable access to files and applications, no matter where they are accessed and no matter what the platform.

Donato Buccella is the CTO at Certeon and brings more than 20 years of software industry experience. You can contact the author at dbuccella (at) certeon (dot) com.

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