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VCs Back Tools to Look Inside the Cloud

Smaller players in the WAN optimization industry attract venture capital interest thanks to the billions companies could spend on cloud computing

Enterprise software, which has gone from running on the computer to being hosted in a corporate data center, is now moving out to nebulous pools of servers called clouds. As computing clouds become part of the corporate information technology environment, making sure software hosted in the cloud is delivered as quickly and efficiently as possible will become increasingly important.

Whether it's an external cloud such as those offered by (AMZN) or an internal cloud operated by a Wall Street investment bank, connecting the applications running on those pools of computing power to the employees using them is going to be an integral part of a company's wide area network, or WAN. And that has venture firms taking a fresh look at an already mature industry known as WAN optimization.

There's nothing terribly exciting about making sure the pipeline that delivers applications between various corporate branch offices and data centers keeps moving and the software gets delivered as quickly as possible, but it's a multibillion-dollar area of spending for corporations intent on squeezing every bit of efficiency from their broadband connections. Players in the WAN optimization market include Riverbed (RVBD), BlueCoat (BCSI), and Packeteer (PKTR) (which BlueCoat agreed to buy back in April), as well as Citrix (CTXS), Cisco (CSCO), and Juniper (JNPR).

Opportunities with WAN Optimization

Despite the relative maturity of the market, venture dollars are still coming in, with two fundings in August alone. On Aug. 18, Ipanema Systems, whose tactic of selling to service providers could be used to offer WAN optimization to providers of computing clouds, said it raised $7 million from Noble Ventures. About a week later, Expand Networks said it raised $8.5 million from Intel Capital, one of several rounds of funding the company has raised since its 1998 formation. On Wednesday, Expand purchased software provider NetPriva, a move that will deepen Expand's visibility into data networks.

Both Expand and Ipanema are smaller players, says Tracy Corbo, an analyst with Gartner (IT). She says these firms have niche products but aren't likely to take a lot of market share away from the existing vendors. Meanwhile, there is also venture interest in creating and finding startups that might use the building blocks of WAN optimization as a launch pad for better cloud utilization and pricing. As Ryan Floyd, a general partner with Storm Ventures, says, "There are opportunities in this space for connecting two types of compute clouds and using WAN optimization to ensure reliability so outages don't happen."

What's so interesting for venture firms (and eventual corporate customers) is the type of knowledge some WAN optimization startups have on hand. That visibility into a network and the servers running applications make it possible to track the delivery of cloud-based services and offer service-level agreements. Many offer compression that could reduce the costs of delivering data from a cloud. For consumers it means Twitter may become more reliable, while for corporate users it means one less strike against cloud computing. It's also why Expand bought NetPriva and why David Asprey is starting a new company called Cloud Nines.

Getting the Most Out of Networks

Asprey plans to launch within six months and doesn't yet have venture backers, but as a veteran of Citrix, Akamai (AKAM), and Exodus, he's familiar with some of the problems facing cloud providers. "The reason people care so much about WAN optimization now is that cloud computing is coming up, and clouds remove the barriers and policies an IT department has in place. So now visibility of the network traffic has become very important," Asprey says.

Being able to measure the availability and costs associated with delivering every byte of data will benefit corporate users, but it should help the providers of clouds squeeze the lowest costs and most utilization out of their networks as well. Google (GOOG) has talked about such network-aware pricing, as have other service providers. Given that providing the basic pools of servers that comprise a computing cloud is a fairly low-margin business, finding pricing models that can take into account cheaper routes for data is a compelling way to shave costs.

Since you have to be able to see the network—a capability some of these WAN optimization firms have—in order to determine the best way to traverse it, expect older players to try to enhance their visibility across the network and newer players to try to usurp their dominance with a cloud-specific model.

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