CDNs edge into app delivery

The increased use of dynamic content and the rise of Web services are pushing enterprise application distribution to the edge of networks and into CDNs (content delivery networks).

CDN providers such as Akamai Technologies Inc. are growing beyond first-generation Web content delivery functions into distributed application delivery, whereas network equipment providers such as Cisco Systems Inc. are offering gear to build dynamic content networking platforms within enterprises.

Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Akamai has tapped a technique called ESI (Edge Side Includes) to evolve its model for speeding Web content into a distributed computing network that executes applications at the edge of the network.

Co-developed with Oracle, ESI is a markup language that creates an interface between application servers and a globally distributed network. Akamai has relationships with application server vendors, including IBM, Oracle, and BEA Systems. This month, CDN provider Speedera Networks, of Santa Clara, California, announced support for ESI.

Coupling an application server with a global delivery network offers the benefits of improved application availability and dynamic assembly of data from back-end systems for things such as advanced personalization.

An early ESI adopter, Nickelodeon is not doing application assembly at the edge, but the technology has allowed it to save about 40 percent of datacenter costs, said Bill Boyer, vice president of R&D at Nickelodeon in New York. Nickelodeon can add parameters to cached content so that all static Web pages are cached with Akamai as well as a large portion of personalized pages. Only the customized content is sent out by Nickelodeon's application server.

"Because we send out less content, ... the bandwidth and datacenter cost savings are very substantial," said Boyer, who spoke on an ESI panel last week at Internet World in New York.

Similarly, networking equipment vendors are heralding the deployment of specialized caching equipment to push applications to the network edge. For enterprises, that could mean cost savings, operational efficiencies, and greater security than would be possible using the Internet.

Siemens Medical Solutions Health Services in Malvern, Pa., has implemented remote execution to streamline delivery of a Web-based application to end-users. Previously, Siemens needed 18 servers to serve its application to 50 customers. Since installing caching devices at the company's datacenter and the edges of its customers' LANs, end-users have been able to quickly download the application from their local cache, and only three servers are now required at the datacenter, said Michael Alban, strategic alliance manager at Siemens.

"Companies are investing in e-business apps, so they need these higher-level, content-aware services," said Jim Ricotta, general manager of San Jose, California-based Cisco Systems' content networking group. "You have to know what the users are requesting, what format they're looking for, and where they are ... because that affects how the content is presented."

To some, however, modern networks are not ready to support remote application execution. Nortel, the Brampton, Ontario-based networking giant, is lobbying the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) for new standards for remote execution. The performance, security, agility, and efficiency of modern networks will first have to be improved, said Peter Cellarius, vice president of marketing at Nortel's Intelligent Internet group.

"If you say [to a large enterprise], 'Let's push [your secure applications] out to a large number of sites and have them handle very sensitive data at those remote sites, they would say, 'Thank you, but we'll wait a couple of years," he said.

Some smaller vendors are stimulating the remote execution trend by coming to market with new transport technologies that speed up application delivery across the network.

Digital Fountain on Monday unveiled a new device that promises to send applications through networks as much as 20 times faster than standard FTP and TCP technologies.

Known as the Transporter Fountain, the new device is a server that quickens distribution by sending instructions that describe the data, rather than the actual data itself.

The technology could have a profound impact on the way Web applications are pushed through CDNs, said Charlie Oppenheimer, vice president of marketing and business development at the Fremont, California-based firm. Bandwidth rates, network loss patterns, and geographic locations differ for each end point, he noted, and conventional CDN technologies "fall apart when you get over a couple of hundred caches," due to the difficulty of sending content to that many devices simultaneously.

Distributed application assembly at the edge is closely linked to Web services concepts being developed by Microsoft, Sun, and IBM, said Michael Hoch, senior analyst at Aberdeen Group in Boston.

"What is being talked about now is how traditional CDN suppliers can enable this movement," Hoch said. "One of the holes in Microsoft's and Sun's Web services plans is how do you deliver a Web service."

Seizing this opportunity, Akamai and Digital Island are eyeing their distributed networks as delivery platforms for shuttling Web services to end-users.

Akamai's network of 13,000 servers supports XSLT (Extensible Stylesheet Language Transformation), used to transform XML into various content formats. In the second half of next year, the company plans to build support for a variety of Web services standards and protocols into its network, said Kieran Taylor, Akamai director of product management.

And San Francisco-based Digital Island, for its part, is looking to partner with Web services framework providers to distribute pieces of application logic around the edge of its network, said Kurt Merriweather, senior product manager for content delivery services at Digital Island.

"Content delivery is an important enabler as far as Web services goes," he said.

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More about Aberdeen GroupAkamai TechnologiesBEACiscoDigital FountainDigital IslandIBM AustraliaIETFInternet Engineering Task ForceIslandMicrosoftNetworking GroupSiemensSpeedera Networks

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