Beta testers and other potential users of Cisco Systems' Application-Oriented Networking (AON) technology last week praised its potential to serve as a secure gateway between different applications, both within corporate networks and for business-to-business uses.
Cisco CEO John Chambers said at the company's Cisco Networkers user conference here in Las Vegas that the new message-routing technology was designed to help close the gap between managing applications and networks. He compared the AON rollout to the advent of telephone dial tones, which replaced the manual system of operators plugging in cables to complete circuits. "We're talking about dial tone for apps," Chambers said.
Steve Warford, a network engineer at the Mayo Clinic's facilities in Phoenix, agreed that Cisco's technology could be a major step forward for users. "AON has the potential to change the way we do networking," Warford said.
Mayo, formally known as the Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, has about 40,000 network nodes throughout the U.S. The network is usually blamed when end users have system problems, Warford said. But often, an application is at fault, he noted, adding that AON could aid in monitoring and preventing such problems.
Cisco plans to release several AON hardware and software components later this year, including modules for its Catalyst 6500 data center switches and its branch-office routers, plus a stand-alone appliance for networks with equipment from other vendors. The vendor didn't announce pricing for the technology, which goes beyond the data-packet level to provide support for business transactions moving through networks via application-to-application messages.
Kevin Andree, a network engineer at Lehman Brothers, said AON could provide a way to transform messages sent via the financial services industry's Financial Information Exchange (FIX) protocol into something more universal, such as XML. "That would be so much easier," he said, adding that transactions would be less complicated to process.
New York-based BT Radianz, which operates a financial services network for 160 brokerages, has been testing AON for 18 months. Chief Technology Officer Brennan Carley said the company recently began working with New York-based software developer TransactTools to build a managed service that will use AON to manage, monitor and report on FIX messages for customers.
In the past, BT Radianz could provide technical information on data latency and whether bytes of information arrived at the correct locations. But AON will help business managers track whether specific transactions go through, Carley said.
Another beta tester, ManTech International, provides network integration services to U.S. government agencies. ManTech has been working for three months to build a prototype system combining AON with an existing homegrown application that intelligence officials use to control access to data, said Bob Coleman, president of the company.
The XML parsing capabilities in AON could give users the means to automatically decide whether a document can be distributed on a network, based on the information's security restrictions, Coleman said. He called AON "complex technology" that will require skilled network technicians to implement but said the investment should be worthwhile.
Cisco attempts to outmuscle rivals
Some other networking vendors offer equipment with capabilities similar to what Cisco will provide in AON. But none comes close to matching the resources and customer base that Cisco has, said Zeus Kerravala, an analyst at The Yankee Group in Boston.
For network managers who are considering new purchases, the rollout of AON "basically answers the question, 'Why Cisco?'" said Kerravala. "Applications will run better on a Cisco network [with AON]."
Officials at Nortel Networks, Ciena, DataPower Technology and Solace Systems all said last week that their products can compete with AON. Other vendors that offer devices for accelerating the processing of XML messages include Sarvega, Reactivity and Forum Systems.
But the AON hardware will provide more than XML acceleration capabilities, said Cisco executives. They said the technology will offer users three core functions: multiprotocol message handling, application security and visibility into network events.
The same kind of application-to-application messaging is already supported by middleware sold by a variety of vendors, said Bob Coleman, president of AON beta-tester ManTech International. But AON should lower costs because it lessens the need for separate servers, software licenses and IT administrators, Coleman said.
Despite the overlap with existing middleware, Cisco listed more than 13 software vendors and systems integrators that it's working with to provide AON-based products. They include IBM, which is integrating its WebSphere software with AON, and SAP, which is linking the Cisco technology to its Enterprise Services Architecture.