This syndicated post originally appeared at Zeus Kerravala's blog.

If there’s one thing the tech industry does, it’s over use terms to the point that they become meaningless. Remember the “everything 2.0” wave? The craze today is around the term “software;” everything is becoming software defined or software enabled or software this that and the other thing.

Over the last year or so I’ve seen a rise in the number of vendors claiming to have “software”-based versions of products that can compete with their hardware-based counterparts. Silver Peak with WAN Optimization, Vidyo in video conferencing, and Vyatta routers come to mind as some recent examples.

I do think there is room in the market for both software and hardware versions of these particular items, but IT buyers should understand the relative strengths and weaknesses of each.

If performance is an absolute must, then buy a dedicated appliance. I’ve heard the arguments that many of the hardware appliances are just software running on off-the-shelf servers. While this is true for some, it is often a gross over-simplification of the product. Some vendors may use off-the-shelf hardware, but the platform has been tuned, tweaked and optimized for that specific function. This may include a stripped-down operating system, additional memory, custom chips or other tweaks to optimize the performance of the application running on it. This is why in any demanding environment, such as telecom or large enterprises, you’ll continue to see dedicated, single-purpose devices as well as software appliances.

The software appliance should be used when flexibility is more important than performance. A great use case is for application development. Want to try and create a video application? Spin up a virtual MCU. Want to see how an application performs behind a load balancer? Spin up a virtual application delivery controller. The software-ization of IT appliances is ideal for application developers, quality assurance, test and development and other IT functions.

Another strong market for the software versions is down market from where the hardware appliances typically sell. Mid-market and small businesses typically can’t afford some of the higher-performing products, nor do they really push the envelope on performance so the dedicated appliance doesn’t really make sense.

Ideally any vendor in the space would offer both a hardware version and software version of a product. F5 does this in the ADC market as does Polycom for video infrastructure. Customers shouldn’t have to choose one versus the other; instead they should buy what they need, where they need it, and in turn leverage the relative strengths of both hardware and software appliances.

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Zeus Kerravala

Zeus Kerravala is the founder and principal analyst with ZK Research. Kerravala provides a mix of tactical advice to help his clients in the current business climate and long term strategic advice.
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