Hardware v’s software – Riverbed’s acquisition of Opnet.

Posted November 20th, 2012 by Tim Nichols

Now the dust has settled over Riverbed’s acquisition of Opnet it’s worth taking a step back and considering some of the expert opinions that have been voiced since the deal was announced. NetWork World published a fascinating article on the 1st of November that canvassed the opinions of a number of respected analysts. The full article can be found here.

Before considering any industry analyst opinion, it’s worth bearing in mind that Wall Street made its views on the acquisition very clear. It’s difficult to see a 20% drop in share price as anything other than a vote of little confidence in the deal.

In the Network World article Andre Kindness (Principal analyst at Forrester) makes some interesting comments. He says “Honestly, I think it’s brilliant. … The reality is, hardware companies have to transition into hardware/software companies, and that’s the only way they’re going to live,” he continues. “I think the problem is that people don’t realize [monitoring’s importance] … even within IT, people still don’t put monitoring at the top. The problem is that everyone follows the shiny ball, and the shiny ball right now is cloud, or software-defined networking — monitoring hasn’t been sexy,” according to Kindness.

As a company playing in the monitoring space we’re in violent agreement with Andre, at least about the need for network visibility and the market’s ability to get easily distracted by new shiny things. Where we feel the need to take odds is with his comment about the need for hardware companies to become software companies to stay relevant. To us this is anathema and is symptomatic of the broader markets lack of understanding about network monitoring.  Anyone that believes that truly actionable network visibility is a problem that can be solved in software is in our opinion fundamentally wrong.

As hardware guys to the core we’re fairly extreme in our views, but at the same time our customers speak volumes. We provide the monitoring, response and root cause foundation for some of the largest organizations in the world from government agencies to telcos, banks and manufacturing companies. What unites our customers is an almost zealotry belief that network monitoring at speeds in excess of 2Gbps is a problem that can ONLY be solved with purpose built hardware. Countless customer bake-offs have demonstrated that in real-world 10Gbps environments software based solution simply don’t cut it.

Back to Riverbed – in the past we’ve run into Opnet in customer engagements and have seen the product in action. At a dashboard level it’s undoubtedly very powerful, but just like all the other software-based vendors out there, their solution struggles to scale to meet the demands of true 10Gbps environments, despite what it might say on the tin. Our mantra is very simple – if you’re going to deploy solutions for Prevention, Detection, Response or Root Cause analysis the only thing that matters is that the analysis engine is seeing every packet. If it’s not seeing every packet, you cannot trust it.

So, Andre on this occasion we need to agree to disagree.  For monitoring companies to stay relevant in a 10Gbps world they absolutely have to BECOME hardware companies, or at least embrace the need for dedicated appliances to underpin their software, because the only way software can effectively scale to 10G is to start sampling network traffic and samples simply doesn’t provide the levels of accuracy and insight required for effective network performance management, response and root cause in critical network environments.