Silver Peak CEO: We're re-imagining the WAN for a cloud world

CEO and founder David Hughes sees huge opportunities in software-defined WAN.

Silver Peak CEO David Hughes
Silver Peak

Silver Peak, Inc., made its name as a top provider of wide-area network optimization capabilities. But the company has its sights set on a loftier goal today: Completely changing the way you build your entire WAN. Silver Peak is moving rapidly to support so-called software-defined WANs, which make it easier and cheaper to connect branches and end users to cloud applications.

David Hughes founded Silver Peak and became CEO in 2013. In this conversation with John Gallant, Chief Content Officer of IDG US Media, he talks about the customer pressures driving this strategic change. He also discusses how the move distances Silver Peak from competitors like Cisco and Riverbed, and describes new tools from Silver Peak that enable customers to build networks based on real business goals versus arcane tech specs.

 

How do you define your market and what differentiates you from competitors?

Traditionally, we’ve been seen as a WAN optimization player. That’s certainly where we made our name. We’ve been able to satisfy some of the largest customers in the world. Now, we’re looking beyond WAN optimization, looking at how to rethink the way you build a wide-area network. We’re hearing from customers that the current way of building a WAN using MPLS, for instance, just isn’t satisfactory as they move to the cloud. They want to be able to use the Internet more effectively than they can today. Where we see our future differentiation is around providing very ready access, very easy connectivity to broadband services so people can build a wide-area network much more quickly and efficiently.

Let’s talk about those customer pressures. Customers are actively working on their own private and hybrid clouds, there’s growing use of software-as-a-service, as well as infrastructure-as-a-service and platform-as-a-service. What kind of strains does all that put on the typical wide-area network? Where are the pinch points and what do you see as the solution to those problems?

If we look back 10 years to the peak of MPLS, it was really designed well for the problem that people had in those days of communication from branch-to-branch and branch-to-data center, where most applications were in the data center. The challenge customers are facing now is that more and more of their applications are migrating from the data center to the cloud, either to be hosted in IaaS or even more likely to be a SaaS service like Salesforce.com or Office 365 or Box. The fundamental traffic flow is no longer branch-to-data center. It’s really branch-to-cloud and the MPLS networks are generally built to primarily send everything back to a data center or headquarters or backup data center and then out to the Internet. That really doesn’t make sense anymore. People want to find a shortcut to get the user in the branch connected to the app in the cloud. It’s this move to the cloud that’s making people rethink their wide-area networks.

Talk about the solutions there, David. What WAN architecture should customers be building?

The fundamental thing that people need to think about is how to build a virtual WAN, a WAN that’s an overlay so they can mix and match services anywhere. They’re comfortable from an SLA point of view with MPLS today but they want to add broadband. They want to be able to use Comcast or they want to be able to use LTE services from Verizon or whomever to give them more cost-effective and more agile connectivity in the branch. An overlay lets them mix and match those services in a very easy way. They’re no longer tied to a single service provider.

Think about VMware virtualization. The hypervisor provided a way for people to quickly migrate software from a Dell server to an HP server to a Dell server as they went through an upgrade path and they didn’t have to reinstall everything or have any downtime because the abstraction layer, the hypervisor, let you mix and match your underlying infrastructure. In the same way going forward, virtual wide-area networks with an overlay will let you mix and match what’s underneath. That really gives you agility and the ability to take advantage of lower cost services.

I want people to understand exactly what you mean by a virtual WAN. Talk to me about what that is and how you help them build that?

Perhaps as an example to get an idea of how someone starts using a virtual WAN, anywhere you could Skype from you could potentially build a branch. All you need is an IP address on an Ethernet port. From there, a device can automatically register and become part of that customer’s network so it’s signing into an overlay which runs over the top of any kind of IP network, be it MPLS or a cable-based system or wireless LTE.

What’s the role of WAN optimization in this virtual environment? People understand that today as two devices at the ends of a link.

There is a name that some people use, SD-WAN or software-defined WAN which embodies some of this. Both SD-WAN and WAN optimization are addressing problems that people have in the wide-area network. The fundamental value proposition of WAN optimization is about performance, performance at a distance, making sure applications work just as well if I’m coming from Singapore or San Francisco. For virtual WANs and SD-WAN, the primary value proposition is about connectivity. I want to easily connect my branch with a minimum of fuss and I want to be able to do that cost effectively and reliably, securely. We obviously have our WAN optimization family and we’ve recently announced an added product family focused on SD-WAN. We see that both those value propositions apply for a number of customers. The intersection between these two worlds is actually pretty big.

That makes sense. Is that product that you referenced the Unity product?

Unity is the umbrella architecture and the new product is called EdgeConnect.

Silver Peak
Silver Peak Unity EdgeConnect

Silver Peak's latest: The Unity EdgeConnect product line.

Let’s talk first about Unity. Help people understand what it is.

Unity is our name for an overlay, our fabric which lets you connect branches, headquarters, IaaS services, SaaS services all together. You don’t have to think about it being attached to one carrier. You can use however many carriers you want and it’s not just physical locations but physical and virtual locations.

Is this similar to the concept that Cisco was talking about recently with the Intercloud?

I’m not sure. There may be some similarities there. I think for Cisco, they have their IWAN [Intelligent WAN], which is their way of taking the legacy routing infrastructure and trying to add things like performance routing to be able to use multiple links cost effectively. But it’s not really an overlay technology. It’s more a way of tweaking routing to try to solve some of the problems with using multiple links. An overlay is different in that you’re not really using all those old protocols like EGP and OSPF. You’re using SDN-influenced technology with end-to-end connectivity and single-hop routing. It’s really a different way of thinking about things. It’s more influenced by the work in the data center around SDN than by the routing protocols of the last two or three decades.

Customers can’t put a device at a cloud provider so how do you create that kind of overlay with all those cloud providers?

There are really two cases. The first case is when it’s an IaaS service like Amazon. In that case, yes, we can be inside running as an AMI (Amazon Machine Image).

Essentially a virtual instantiation of the product?

Yes, and we have similar capabilities for Microsoft Azure and VMware vCloud Air. In all those cases you can run Silver Peak software inside your virtual private cloud. The second case is that of the SaaS service where, unless you’re a very large customer, if you go to Salesforce or Office 365 and ask them to take your piece of hardware, the most likely answer is going to be no. For that, we take a different approach, which is while you can’t be inside that service provider, you can certainly be very close. If you look at the way the network and the cloud are evolving, there are a few interconnect points which are one hop away from a lot of people. To the extent that you can build a network hub that is either at or close to that location, you can be very close to those SaaS providers. We track where all the SaaS providers are providing their services from and we’ll route your traffic to the egress point from your network that’s closest to that provider, basically getting you to the doorstep of Salesforce or Office 365.

That makes sense. I was reading a piece by Zeus Kerravala in Network World where he was talking about Unity actually having the ability to determine, based on traffic patterns, what is the optimal route. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Essentially, we know where all the Office 365 data centers are around the world and we have a service with that information so our customers are able to measure from each gateway the distance to each of those services. That provides the customer - it’s all automated - the information needed to take the best route for that service.

Based on collective intelligence from all your customers?

Yes, both the measurements that the individual customers are making as well as collective information that’s coming from our Unity intelligence service.

Can you talk to me about a customer and what they’ve seen from using the Unity product?

Sure, we have a number of customers, but one of them is Interrol in Europe. They’ve used us to augment an MPLS network and build out using the Internet with roughly five times as much bandwidth for the same cost as what they had before. We’ve got a lot of other customers in the midst of making the same transition. It’s a very common path right now to be looking at: How do I take my MPLS network and augment it with Internet connectivity? That’s the main driving use case we see with our customers at present.

There’s a lot of talk lately about software-defined networks. How does SDN match up with the wide-area network trends that you’re talking about? Do these two things synch up?

SDN has been a buzz topic in the data center for probably five years now. Some people see it as a solution in search of a problem. There are certainly some niche applications but for a lot of enterprises, there’s not a compelling reason to implement SDN today. Maybe soon. The difference that I see in the wide-area network is that we are solving a real problem customers have. They want to be able to leverage multiple networks. They want to get agility. They want the automation that comes with SDN and that’s where this SD-WAN piece comes in. It’s one of the first instances of SDN where it’s driven by a real problem. You’re probably familiar with the Open Network User Group that grew up in New York. They’ve been pushing the open networking SDN angle for a while. They’ve recently started to look at SD-WAN. It’s been voted two or three sessions in a row now as the top use case because it’s applying a lot of the ideas - the overlay ideas, the automation ideas - to a real and present problem.

Is there a role for the carriers in this or do they see it as a threat?

They see it as a threat but I think there is a role. For every customer that wants to take the network into their own hands and wrest control back from the carrier, there are other customers that really want to have someone handle their networking soup to nuts. While SD-WAN is sometimes looked at as a way of giving the customer leverage to mix and match carriers, it’s also a very good way of building your managed service. We’ve been engaging with some forward thinking service providers who are looking at how to leverage SD-WAN technology to be able to provide managed services more cost effectively. I think it’s definitely a threat but it’s absolutely an opportunity for service providers that are willing to think a little bit outside the box.

It would seem that they are the ones who are ideally situated because they’re located near all of the cloud providers. Whether you have an office or not they have something close to the cloud provider.

Yes.

And they can be that point of egress that you talked about.

Yes, they certainly have multiple points of presence so they can provide a regional hub service, for instance. There was an announcement we had with Equinix about a year ago where they provide Performance Hub service because they’ve got all of those locations. They are a real estate-driven service provider but even for the traditional service providers there are opportunities for them to do some really creative things.

How does this change the competitive dynamic for Silver Peak? There are a lot of companies in your space. There’s Cisco, Riverbed, Dell. I’m sure I’m forgetting a few other folks that you compete with. Where do they stand on this transition?

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