Lab test: Riverbed Steelhead and Steelhead Mobile push the WAN performance envelope
Version 1.0 of the software client brings huge performance gains to CIFS file transfers, though HTTPS and NFS are not supported; Version 4.1 of the site-to-site solution shows overall performance improvement over Version 3.0, while adding key features, including HTTPS support
RiOS 4.1 also boasts two new application-specific optimizations. First, the Steelhead can now accelerate HTTPS traffic between appliances. Like the SG family of appliances from Blue Coat Systems (see my review), Steelhead intercepts the HTTPS session from the client, decrypts the traffic, optimizes it, and re-encrypts it over the WAN, where the process is reversed by the second appliance. This "man in the middle" approach requires IT to install the appropriate certificates on each appliance, but the end-user's experience doesn't change. Setup and configuration of the SSL encryption and decryption is a bit involved, but not so difficult that this highly useful feature should be ignored. My pair of Steelhead's handled HTTPS traffic well in the lab, though I was not able to measure the performance. My seat-of-the-pants view is that users will not notice any slowdown during initial setup, and will experience better overall performance for secure traffic.
The second new optimization improves the performance of Oracle E-Business applications over the WAN. The Oracle Java Initiator (JInitiator) is a browser plug-in that allows users to access Oracle Forms and E-Business content. Riverbed's blade decrypts, optimizes, and re-encrypts JInitiator traffic, and can optionally encrypt it with IPSec for secure transport over the WAN.
Not to be left out, Steelhead's hardware received some enhancements also. To make sure no data is vulnerable, optional encryption of the data store using AES-128, AES-192, or AES-256 is available. Fault tolerance gets a boost with better Active-Active failover support. The data stores are kept synchronized at all times for faster fail-over regardless of deployment – serial or parallel.
Reporting has always been a strong point with the Steelhead, and while there are no major changes in release 4.1, there have been some subtle improvements in granularity. I've always liked the simplicity of the reporting engine, which makes it easy to read and filter the current information. During my test I constantly referred to the Current Connections page to make sure traffic was being optimized as I expected. I also like that I can export NetFlow information on a per-interface basis for further analysis.
From weak link to SuperWAN
There is no argument whether WAN optimization is necessary – it is. The question becomes which solution to choose based on the types of traffic and WAN conditions in place. Riverbed has consistently led the way with a broad range of application support and excellent performance. The latest offerings, both hardware and software, continue to push the performance and functionality envelope.
Software-based WAN acceleration is finally coming of age, and Riverbed's Steelhead Mobile client is one of the best efforts to date. Performance is outstanding, and the centralized management capability makes IT's life a lot easier. The additional cost of the Steelhead Mobile Controller may be a road block to some deployments, but for many, the benefits will make it well worth the investment.
The Steelhead family of appliances continues to evolve, and Riverbed continues to improve on an already capable product. New application support for HTTPS and Oracle JInitiator complement a well-rounded set of optimizations. Overall performance is still among the best available, and reporting leaves nothing out. Riverbed has once again bolstered the utility belt for WAN-weary IT superheroes.