Invite to dinner six executives from the top application acceleration vendors and the discussion starts flying fast. Speeding things up is what these guys do for a living.
Dealing with myriad software protocols, application quirks, internal politics between network and application engineers, and the hurdles of data security and service reliability were all issues occupying the minds of executives from Cisco, Citrix, Crescendo Networks, F5 Networks, Foundry and Juniper who joined Network World's editors for dinner at the Interop show in New York last week.
Take away the moody lighting, nouvelle cuisine and high-end-hipster styling of The Town restaurant at Midtown's Chambers Hotel and the talk might have mirrored an IT brainstorming session in a corporate boardroom.
Application acceleration is a broad term, encompassing devices such as WAN optimization gear, Layer 4-7 switching, compression, caching, TCP/IP and SSL offload and application security, and firewalling capabilities. George Kurian, Cisco's vice president of application delivery products, helped kick off the discussion about what problems application acceleration gear is supposed to solve.
"In the data center, the pain points . . . are application availability, application security and application response," Kurian said.
Citrix CTO Prabakar Sundarrajan agreed, saying, "The biggest pain point is application performance." This is because of a trend in enterprises in which users are deploying applications in as few physical locations as possible, through consolidated data centers, and trying to deliver those applications across a wide geographical area.
"Most applications today are designed for the LAN," said Jeff Pancottine, senior vice president for F5. "They're designed for high bandwidth and low latency. But the user base is becoming completely dispersed . . . and most of those applications are breaking. And they're breaking because of the latency and bandwidth issues."
Many of the vendors at the table entered the market with application front-end devices that accelerate Web-based traffic and protocols via load balancing, compression and caching. As users Web-enable more-complex business applications, and wrap legacy software protocols in HTTP for Web transport, the issues of boosting application performance become more complex.
"A lot of organizations are converting apps to be served over the Web," said Doron Meirom, U.S. president of Crescendo, which makes a Layer 4-7 switch featuring hardware-based protocol offload and compression features. Going forward, he said "a majority of users are going to use HTTP.... It's the most reliable way to deliver applications," whether users are located on a LAN or remotely.
Vendors are focused on XML.
"Being able to accelerate and secure XML is one of the largest issues that will come around in this market," Pancottine said. "I'm not saying these are the big issues today . . . but all of these standard packaged applications out there are being written around [Simple Object Access Protocol] and XML."
While a future in which all applications are optimized for HTTP and XML travel across the wire can be envisioned, acceleration products must be able to handle the here-and-now application load, others said.
"There's a difference between providing some [HTTP] compression . . . and really understanding the protocol itself," said Dan Leary, vice president of product marketing at Juniper.
Particularly, application protocols such as Windows' Common Internet File System (CIFS) file structure and Microsoft Exchange's Messaging API (MAPI) are susceptible to being bogged down over WAN connections. "The trend of centralizing data centers is putting a significant demand on users who need to access CIFS protocols over WANs, for which [CIFS] was never designed," Leary said.
The centralization of e-mail servers also makes e-mail application delivery a challenge. Equipment that can identify these traffic types on a per-application basis and optimize the protocols by replicating CIFS and MAPI environments in a remote site can help with such problems, he said.
Vendors are focusing on applications beyond business software packages and service-oriented architecture products.
"We're also seeing a lot of interest in voice over IP based on [Session Initiation Protocol]," said Bob Schiff, vice president of enterprise switching and routing at Foundry. "Customers are using Layer 7 application switches for load balancing, and for providing protocol validation and SIP optimization," he said.
Architecture and design issues involved in application acceleration are also changing how engineers - both from the network side and applications side - talk to each other.
"It's a dual sale," Cisco's Kurian said. "You have to convince the network guys that what you're adding doesn't disrupt the existing network. But the dollars are often held in the application programmers" budgets.
F5's Pancottine agreed. "It's difficult for application people to have the influence they want on the networking guys," he said. Application people "tend to have the money," he said, but the burden on making things work falls mostly on the network group. "They have to operate everything in the network - not just the Layer 4-7 environment," he said. "In some cases, the network guys are the hardest to convince because they have the most on their plate."
Citrix's Sundarrajan said network professionals often look to application acceleration to relieve their burden.
"Networking people tend to be blamed for poor application performance," he said. "So they have to do something to make sure their mission is accomplished."
Risks are always involved in deploying these new technologies to solve application problems, Foundry's Schiff said.
"It's another piece of gear that could be attacked, hacked or could fail . . . but the benefits of sharing the load between the network and the computer servers on which applications reside are significant. The advantages customers enjoy far outweigh the risks."