By Jason Bloomberg, Contributer, Forbes
Apr. 26, 2016 -- For the last few decades, the Wide-Area Network (WAN) market has been nearly moribund. WANs are private networks that connect branch offices of large corporations, enabling them to control and secure their long-distance network connectivity without having to rely upon the public Internet.
Aside from periodic updates in networking protocols, as slower protocols like Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM) and Synchronous Optical Network (SONET) gave way to the newer, but now aging Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS), little innovation had been taking place in the WAN arena.
How times have changed. With the explosion of interest in Software-Defined Networking (SDN) and the cloud generally, WANs are once again a hot ticket. Software Defined WAN (SD-WAN) and related Virtual WAN (vWAN) technologies are rapidly maturing, and demand for them is set to explode.
Today, Riverbed Technology, one of the leading WAN optimization vendors, is throwing its hat into the SD-WAN ring with SteelConnect. Leveraging the technology Riverbed acquired by purchasing Ocedo earlier this year, SteelConnect orchestrates application delivery across hybrid WANs, remote Local Area Networks (LANs), and cloud networks.
While there are several vendors in the SD-WAN market, Riverbed’s application-defined approach separates it from the pack. “The promise of SD-WAN brings us part way toward the dream of software-defined networking,” says Paul O’Farrell, Senior Vice President and General Manager of the SteelCentral, SteelHead, and SteelFusion Business Units at Riverbed Technology. “But SteelConnect’s application-defined approach takes enterprises one step further by unifying user connectivity and the cloud with business locations and data centers, making networks easy to set up and manage from one central location.”
Combined with Riverbed’s other products, including Riverbed’s SteelCentral visibility solution, SteelConnect simplifies the process of designing, deploying and managing distributed networks, enabling organizations to modernize their network architecture. The screenshot below shows SteelConnect in action.
In the screenshot above, an admin is able to set and manage traffic path rules connecting branch offices to each other or to the cloud. With this technology it’s possible to send more sensitive data over secure networks (either MPLS or virtual private networks), while allowing less sensitive data like app downloads or Netflix traffic over the public Internet, thus saving on private network costs.
Networking technology leader Cisco Systems CSCO +0.47% is perhaps Riverbed’s greatest competitor in the SD-WAN space. It could also be said – although Cisco is likely to disagree – that Cisco has an unfair advantage in the SD-WAN marketplace, because of its dominant position in the network hardware market.
If a customer has Cisco gear in the network closet at branch locations, the reasoning goes, then it is more likely to go with Cisco for SD-WAN technology, even if a competitor’s product would be a better fit otherwise.
To help level this playing field, Riverbed has been putting together its Project Tiger initiative, bringing to market a new suite of SD-WAN products that will eliminate the need for branch routers or the associated network management skills at branch locations.
For customers who struggle to staff and maintain technical expertise at branch locations (how many network admins can a fast food joint or bank branch afford to have on staff?), this ‘zero touch’ offering will be a godsend. Furthermore, the fact that Project Tiger loosens Cisco’s grip on the SD-WAN market is a definite bonus.
SteelConnect is a strategically important element of Project Tiger, as Tiger at its core is a software platform that follows the fundamental SDN principle of separating the control plane (where the network topology lives) from the data plane (which decides where packets go). The result: a fully configurable, software-driven WAN that balances the three core priorities of traffic optimization, security, and aggregation of network services.
For most its history, the primary emphasis of networking technology was to manage a relatively static network infrastructure. After all, once you have your network set up, changes tend to be infrequent.
The rapid maturation of public cloud computing has fundamentally transformed this reality, as cloud providers require fully automated network configuration capabilities. This cloud juggernaut in turn drove rapid innovation in the software-driven networking industry. Today, vendors are now able to offer increasingly mature SDN capabilities to a diverse enterprise market.
As enterprises get up to speed with this new networking paradigm, they will be able to treat their network as a dynamic, flexible part of their IT infrastructure. “While other areas of IT have leapt forward, for the last 20 years networking has largely remained stagnant,” O’Farrell explains. “Networks should be as easy to use and manage as any of the apps and cloud services we interact with on a daily basis.”
In the final analysis, the resulting business agility becomes a strategic enabler of digital transformation – belying SD-WAN’s humble roots. Traditional WANs may be moribund, but next-generation SD-WAN technology like SteelConnect from Riverbed Technologies is breathing new life into the networking marketplace.
Intellyx advises companies on their digital transformation initiatives and helps vendors communicate their agility stories. As of the time of writing, Riverbed Technologies is an Intellyx customer. None of the other organizations mentioned in this article are Intellyx customers.