Achieving optimum application performance

Like veteran poker players, network executives have long depended on a mix of skill, instincts and just plain luck to predict application performance. With business success hanging in the balance, however, today's stakes are too high for a gamble on application optimization.

Fortunately, today's network executives can deliver optimized application performance across local- and wide-area networks using a variety of technologies, and can spot slowdowns in real time using tactical tools. In fact, when planning their new data centre infrastructure, network executives must incorporate application optimization technologies. The challenge is collecting the right mix of technologies and tools for a winning hand.

"Application management software is great when you are working with a constrained pipe. But if you are dealing with application traffic on the Internet, it becomes a whole new game," says Bruce Meyer, senior network engineer at ProMedica Health System.

Meyer invested in a Nortel Application Switch 2208 to get a better view of the application traffic consuming bandwidth among some 9000 users at 209 healthcare facilities. He couples it with an open source, Linux-based reporting tool to get stats on top talkers and bandwidth consumption. The application switch, deployed between a gateway router and the firewall, can classify more than 90 percent of network and application traffic and apply predefined use policies to guarantee that critical application traffic, such as radiology services, gets priority over traffic such as peer-to-peer chats, he says.

"If you know what's travelling over your network, you can better control application flows and offer higher availability and better performance for business applications," Meyer says. "No one has told me about the business need for iTunes yet."

Meyer certainly is not alone in his quest to better understand applications. Across enterprises, the urgency of that task continues to multiply as data centre consolidation thrives, telecommuting grows and complex distributed applications flourish. Whether used on their own or in concert with others, the tools available today should in one way or another tell network executives how to design their networks for applications and instrument applications for their particular networks. "There is a lot more intelligence available today about how the application uses the network and how the network can make the application more responsive, robust and reliable," says Joe Skorupa, a research director at Gartner.

Accelerators, switches and software - oh my

With such stakes, it's no surprise that network gear and management vendors are pitching product packages for eliminating application performance woes. For example, Cisco has its Network Application Performance Analysis push, while HP has Adaptive Enterprise. And that's not stopping newcomers, such as Certeon and Symphoniq, from pursuing the optimization market.

Opportunities should be plentiful, regardless. "Most network managers are going to need two or three clusters of tool sets to adequately attack this problem in the data centre and across the WAN," says Dennis Drogseth, a vice president with Enterprise Management Associates. "They need visibility into application performance, usage and behaviour as well as active capabilities that can take action in real time. It will be like Lego pieces coming together - a monitoring product sees the performance, an accelerator triggers a policy to ensure service delivery and an analytics tool comes into play for planning."

Application acceleration and WAN optimization devices perform a series of tasks, from compression to caching to server load balancing. The goal is ensuring remote and branch office users don't suffer performance degradations.

Traffic-analysis products from network-savvy vendors including Network General, Network Physics, NetQoS, NetScout and Visual Networks (recently acquired by Fluke Networks) can deliver application flow data, detailing the paths and hops application traffic takes between user requests to back-end systems.

More hardware options come in the form of application switches from Cisco, Extreme Networks and Nortel. An application switch acts as a proxy for Web applications and servers sitting behind it. Users can virtualize an unlimited number of back-end Web applications and servers, providing better availability, scaling and performance.

In the software realm, application performance management software from BMC Software, CA, HP and IBM provide infrastructure monitoring, critical to understanding the resources applications consume. Now the big four - with EMC `and Opsware - are augmenting their suites with application-discovery and dependency-mapping technologies. These tools promise quick views of the sources of performance slowdowns through topological maps.

Tools that monitor users, from companies such as Reflectent (acquired by Citrix), Coradiant and ProactiveNet, address the most critical element to many network executives - the customer experience with an application. And don't forget predeployment profiling, testing and emulation tools from Apposite Technologies, Compuware, Mercury Interactive and Shunra. They equip network managers with knowledge of network and application performance before an application rollout.

"IT managers are warming up to the idea of spending more time with an application upstream, in predeployment, to ensure better performance on the live network," says Jean-Pierre Garbani, a research director with Forrester Research. "But still it's not enough, because often the rush to roll out the app limits the testing, and inevitably performance problems crop up later."

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