Reactivity acquisition strengthens Cisco's SOA arsenal

XML appliance maker Reactivity adds to Cisco's tools for tying Web services closer to network gear

Cisco Systems's acquisition of Reactivity on Wednesday gives the company some key tools it needs to carry out its vision of a services-oriented application architecture centered on the network.

Cisco agreed to pay about $135 million for the privately held appliance vendor of Redwood City, California, just a few miles up the freeway from Cisco's San Jose headquarters. Reactivity's 56 employees will join Cisco's application delivery business unit in San Jose after the deal closes, probably by the end of April, according to Cisco.

Founded in 1998, Reactivity specializes in XML (Extensible Markup Language) parsing, the work of analyzing the XML traffic that helps to power SOA (service-oriented architecture) and Web 2.0 applications. Enterprises are embracing these approaches to computing both internally and with customers and partners to make more efficient use of their IT resources and gain new capabilities.

SOA lets enterprises combine disparate IT resources in different ways to create new services rather than relying on specific applications and servers. Web 2.0 combines applications to offer new capabilities over the Internet. While system and software vendors are trying to tackle these hot trends from the data center, Cisco wants them to be powered from within the network.

Reactivity's appliances perform three key functions, according to George Kurian, [cq] vice president and general manager of the application delivery business unit. They can help secure enterprises from XML-related attacks by analyzing the XML traffic coming over the network. They also mediate among different protocols and standards as messages are sent among applications and other components of SOA. Finally, the company's hardware and software offload processor-intensive functions from other parts of the IT infrastructure.

Initially, Cisco will continue selling Reactivity's appliances, but in time it hopes to integrate these functions into its ACE (Application Control Engine), available as a module for Catalyst 6500 Series switches.

Cisco is getting this parsing capability for the first time, Kurian said.

It will set Cisco apart from other application switching companies, such as F5 Networks and Citrix Systems, he said.

Reactivity's products have the same basic goals that were set out for Cisco's AON (Application-Oriented Networking) technology, according to Forrester Research Inc. analyst Rob Whiteley. [cq] But the company never made those tools what they could have been and didn't have a sales force steeped in this area, he said.

"With a certain amount of money and effort, AON would have become an alternative to Reactivity," he said.

Although XML parsing will set Cisco apart among application switching vendors, the company faces big rivals: Intel and IBM have recently made acquisitions in this area, said IDC analyst Abner Germanow.

As it tries to move more software functions into switches and routers, Cisco's rivals increasingly are companies from outside networking, he said.

But when it comes to making applications work quickly and securely as demand grows, Cisco probably has the right approach, Germanow said.

"All those appliances between the server and the network are candidates for movement into the computing environment in blade servers or into the network. In general, if you want to scale something to be fairly large, the network is a good place to do that," Germanow said.