An IT Appliance that Makes a Difference

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Welcome to AECWeekly! I did not ask why this technology company is named Riverbed, but it's fitting that its flagship product is called Steelhead, after the fish. My guess is that steelheads are good networkers? Riverbed fills a need for companies who have traditionally used compression or caching appliances to try and gain greater throughput on networks. Find out about it in this week's Industry News.

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Industry News

An IT Appliance that Makes a Difference
By Susan Smith

I did not ask why this technology company is named Riverbed, but it's fitting that its flagship product is called Steelhead, after the fish. My guess is that steelheads are good networkers?

It's always a pleasure to write about a product that really makes a significant difference in a company's productivity right away. Most installations don't offer an appreciable ROI for years out, but Riverbed's Steelhead Appliance may be a bit different. You plug it in and five minutes later it's ready to go.

Riverbed Technology is a two and a half year old startup that began shipping their first products in May of 2004. The IT product discussed here is Riverbed Steelhead appliance, an appliance that is really a special purpose server deployed between headquarters and a remote office over the wide area network (WAN).

"Up to now, employees in different offices were not able to share large files over large distances," explained Alan Saldich, VP of product marketing for Riverbed. "It optimizes traffic over the WAN, like file serving, email, FTP and Web applications and allows employees who work in different offices collaborate more efficiently."

Riverbed fills a need for companies who have traditionally used compression or caching appliances to try and gain greater throughput on networks. Saldich reports 20 or 30 AEC customers who have embraced Riverbed's technology right away, and a hundred or more in other segments such as oil and gas, manufacturing and government.

For architectural firms, Riverbed solves specific problems. Gensler is their most prominent AEC customer at this point, with Steelhead appliances deployed at 27 sites around the world.

"The Steelhead appliances make sharing of large AutoCAD files between architects much quicker. We report 70 times throughput improvement which means that a file that used to take an hour to send across the network, now takes seconds," said Bruce Bartolf, principal and CTO, of Gensler. "It makes a difference how you share and collaborate data with somebody."

Bartolf also talks about what Gensler's CIO Ken Sanders calls 'Insourcing.' When Gensler wins a big project in an office already to capacity, the firm may not have enough engineers and architects locally to take on the project, so they need to borrow capacity from other offices. Before Gensler deployed the Steelhead appliances, the huge files were impossible to share electronically over distance. It was so bad, that instead of emailing a building design, it was quicker and more efficient to overnight ship the plans. Now, with the Steelhead appliances optimizing the traffic between offices, architects working together on a project have access to the data they need. The alternative was to maintain redundant sets of data and run the risk of data inconsistencies.

Steelhead appliances also make possible what Gensler calls the 'serverless office,' or the 'office in a box.' "We make the WAN perform so much like a LAN so we aren't required to put in any local file servers or data storage structure," Bartolff said. "If we open a new office in Las Vegas, for example, the architects can actually work off of pre-existing infrastructure in San Francisco, and save a lot of infrastructure costs."

Currently Riverbed's deployments are all within companies, yet if Gensler were working with Bechtel for example, both companies would need to have a Steelhead appliance.

Saldich says that customers report revision control as the most significant business impact. "In a multi-office firm, working for people who are collaborating, revision control is one of the biggest issues. The reason that's such a big problem is the only way to work around this WAN problem today is to maintain multiple sets of data, because you just can't get data from point A to point B fast enough. So you maintain multiple file systems and then you use some PDM software to synchronize all the data every night. The next day everyone has the latest rev and it's just ripe with opportunity for error. Our product works 50 to 100 times faster, and you can eliminate those multiple copies of data and just maintain one centralized file sharer that everybody on the project works from. One set of drawings.."

List price on Steelhead starts at $5,995 per box and you need two, thus the minimum purchase is $12,000. At list there are five models and they go up to about $40,000 per box depending on disk size and processor speed. Architecture firms typically go for the smaller appliances in the remote office with one larger Steelhead in headquarters. Steelhead optimizes the traffic that goes through it and essentially removes all the redundant traffic so once a drawing goes across the network, all bytes that made up that drawing are stored on the appliance in such a way that subsequent requests for that file or anything similar to it, or any of the bytes that are redundant won't be sent across the network again.

Bandwidth and Latency - How Steelhead Works

What makes the Steelhead different is that it stores all TCP traffic on the appliance so everything that goes over the internet connection or private network is chopped up into very small segments of data, for example, 100 bytes.

"We store those segments of data on our disk on both sides of the network," explained Saldich. "So the first time we store something on the network it gets broken down into these segments on the first side. The data is sent in a compressed form, and then stored on the client side as well. So you've got a file of bits on both sides of the network. Then the file gets delivered to the end user after the first request. The file itself contains no information about what's on it, who owns it or what the application it is. Then the person who received the file the first time works on it for awhile and wants to send it back to his colleague across the network. So as he sends it back. This time it gets decomposed by the Steelhead Appliance, but the way we do the segmentation of the data is deterministic, which means it gets done identically every time. If the data is the same, the segments are identical. We have a way of arranging all the segments hierarchically and indexing them very quickly which all happens in one millisecond. And so we look at all these segments we've created and decide if any of these segments of data are the same as segments that have been through the system before. If they are, we don't send them, we just send a reference which is like a token or pointer that points to that same data on the other side of the network. Those references can represent an enormous amount of data."

In this way the Steelhead Appliance is not a file level difference comparison which is what most other products like this are. Most systems look at a file and determine if it is a file they already have by looking at filename, date, etc.

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