Cisco’s Redford also points out that the ability to inspect and route messages will lead to better visibility into transactions, resulting in improved security, compliance, and business-intelligence capabilities. AON will also offer load balancing, caching, and compression services. Although all these services could slow down network traffic to some extent, Redford claims that the benefits would include much improved application performance and significantly lower integration costs (because any integration changes would be made on the switch, rather than across all the various interacting systems).
Smaller Vendors, Specialized Gear
The networking giants, however, aren’t the only game in town. Smaller players in the load-balancing Layer 4-7 switch market, which include F5, FineGround, NetScaler, Radware, and Redline, offer products they call ADCs (application-delivery controllers) or WOCs (WAN Optimization Controllers). Many of these vendors have already been involved in application intelligence for several years and claim to have the corner on that kind of expertise.
“We’re the only ones that can inspect the entire flow, headers, and payload in both directions,” says F5’s Needham.
ADC boxes sit in the data center in front of banks of servers. Originally they provided application load balancing and health checking, but over time their capabilities have grown to include off-loading communications-specific tasks, which general-purpose operating systems don’t do well, according to Joe Skorupa, research director at Gartner. Many ADCs off-load functions like SSL termination and acceleration and TCP setup and shutdown, and they provide transaction security, application firewalls, caching, and compression. Often, these devices can be fine tuned to optimize the performance of specific back office applications, such as SAP, and can monitor and troubleshoot individual transactions.
“F5’s hardware has the ability to watch a request come in and, if the transaction fails, it can trap the error, send the message to the server administrator saying, ‘This transaction failed to this client from this server at this time, and here’s the code,’” Skorupa says. “Then it replays the transaction with another server. The user never sees the error.”
Vendors such as Allot Communications, Expand Networks, Packeteer, and Peribit Networks market WAN optimization controllers, which sit on the network at both the corporate headquarters and remote offices and use compression and TCP-acceleration tricks to overcome latency and other problems on the WAN. Skorupa says that the functions of these boxes will eventually be incorporated into ADCs and branch office routers. You can read more about WAN optimization appliances in “Wide-area Slowdown.”
Still another group of hardware and chip vendors are concentrating on the XML and Web-services space, working to incorporate the XML processing capabilities currently available in specialized XML processing appliances from such players as Reactivity and Sarvega.
In fact, the range of product offerings from smaller vendors is compelling enough that the major networking vendors have launched a buying spree, with Cisco acquiring FineGround, Juniper engulfing Redline Networks and Peribit Networks, and Citrix scooping up NetScaler. But there’s still plenty of room for innovation outside the traditional networking vendors.