New switch improves IP application management

F5 Networks Inc. will announce next week a new version of its BIG-IP software, adding the ability to manage data for any IP-based application over a variety of newer network protocols.

Analysts described the software upgrade as part of an emerging trend toward new devices and software that will move application traffic based on XML and Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), among others, throughout networks without the need for custom-built tools to manage an application's path through the network.

After a successful two-month trial with the new version, Net2Phone Inc. in Newark, N.J., plans to turn it on "any day" to manage voice over IP traffic using SIP, said Chief Technology Officer Jeff Skelton. The voice over IP provider handles millions of data-based voice calls every day globally.

Skelton said the move to BIG-IP stems from wanting to use standardized protocols, including SIP. BIG-IP uses software to inspect not only the header of an IP packet moving through a network, but also the payload, and delivers it to the proper location. The lifetime of a SIP session is the duration of a phone call, which can be hours long.

"Looking at just the IP header is not enough for a SIP flow," Skelton said. "You have to look at the body of the payload to know which of the available application servers to route it to."

He said the software "gives us the ability to horizontally scale our traffic while maintaining reliability, and it has been easy to operate." Skelton wouldn't disclose the cost of the product.

The new BIG-IP release takes Seattle-based F5 beyond load balancing of Web pages, a US$500 million market that was saturated, said analyst Joel Conover at Current Analysis Inc. in Sterling, Va.

Conover said other small vendors are able to provide software to look at payloads of packets, but "most don't have the horsepower to do multiple applications at once."

While F5 describes this new market as application traffic management, some analysts term it application data routing. About 20 smaller vendors are shipping or developing XML switches, including Sarvega Inc. in Burr Ridge, Ill., that simplify the need for an enterprise to build custom tools, said Greg Howard, an analyst at HTRC Group LLC in San Andreas, Calif.

Conover said F5's newest release might reach the speed of the Sarvega switch within six months for XML switching, but in its current state BIG-IP has the advantage of understanding any application protocol and any IP application.

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