The growing use of XML and Web services is fueling development of hardware that promises to accelerate the processing of XML traffic and eventually become a staple of network architectures.
Start-up vendors are poised to introduce products, established vendors are receiving millions of dollars in additional funding, and network stalwarts such as Cisco Systems Inc. are keeping a watchful eye on developments.
So-called XML-aware network hardware or traffic acceleration devices work at or near wire speeds to process bulky XML messages. This is an exercise that users find can eat up nearly 80 percent of server processing power when done with application server software.
A new generation of enterprise-class XML protocols for security, process workflow, reliability and management only promises to accentuate the problem.
"XML trades performance for extensibility," says Ted Schadler, principal analyst for software at Forrester Research Inc. "The extensibility is huge because you can add mechanisms like security and encryption incrementally, but that means you have to parse the message to pull out the data. It's a huge amount of overhead."
Schadler says dedicated network hardware will become a requirement for successful XML and Web services adoption and eventually will help define a layer in networks committed to XML.
The evolution is not surprising because many CPU-intensive tasks in the past have been moved from software to dedicated hardware.
Some vendors are rising to the XML challenge with general-purpose products and others have focused on specific tasks such as security or transformation. Early adopters say XML processing inevitably will move from application server software to hardware.
Earlier this month, Sarvega Inc., which develops a hardware accelerator called XPE 2000, received an additional US$10 million in venture funding. Other players such as DataPower Technology Inc. - with founder and CTO Eugene Kuznetsov - are stocked with industry veterans from companies such as Cisco and Nortel Networks Corp. Other vendors include Forum Systems Inc., Reactivity Inc. and Westbridge Technology Inc.
Also, start-ups such as Conformative Systems Inc., which received $6.5 million in venture backing this month, are emerging from stealth mode and plan to introduce products next year. And nearly a half dozen other start-ups are currently flying under the radar, analysts say.
Intel Corp. spinoff Tarari Inc. this month is scheduled to release its first XML Content Processor, a silicon-based XML processing engine on a PCI card that plugs into servers, appliances or network devices.
Analysts say established hardware vendors such as Cisco, F5 Networks Inc. and Nortel will incorporate some type of acceleration technology over the coming years.
"We don't have to solve this problem today, but we are keeping an eye on it," says Mike Paratore, product line manager for content switches at Cisco.
These network devices sit behind a firewall and form an aggregation point for XML traffic on the wire. They parse XML messages, validate integrity and security attributes, transform data formats and route messages.
"In the Web services model, XML acceleration becomes a necessity," says Jeff Lamb, CTO for Leader Technologies, which runs the LeaderPhone.com Web-based teleconferencing service.
Lamb uses Extensible Stylesheet Language Transformations to render interfaces to the LeaderPhone Web site that are appropriate for a user's connection speed and device.
"We could not have done this without acceleration hardware," says Lamb, who uses an XA35 XML Accelerator from DataPower. "The complex transformations were bogging down our application server, which made the user experience much too slow." Lamb was using a common parsing engine from Apache called Xerces on the application server.
Lamb's experience is likely to become the norm. Research firm ZapThink LLC says XML is expected to account for more than 25 percent of network traffic by 2006, up from just under 2 percent today. And Forrester says 1 billion clients will be sending and receiving XML messages based on the Simple Object Access Protocol by 2008.
"XML gives us the next level for data delivery and that will drive the need for acceleration," says Chandru Bolaki, director for research and development at UTStarcom Inc., which develops network gear for service providers. Bolaki has run a Sarvega XPE accelerator for two years to inject user data into his call center.
"The first issue is always ease of use. HTML is a good example. When it first started out, there was no concern about handling the volume. But as people found out how easy it was to use, it exploded and that's why you have companies like Akamai (which caches content)," Bolaki says.
In addition to streamlining the use of XML, acceleration hardware will give users an idea of what it will take to design a service-oriented architecture, a network that can accommodate a collection of loosely connected, reusable Web services components that can be stitched into applications.
"Once the data-center folks see all the Web services traffic on the network they will want bottleneck issues solved," says Ron Schmelzer, an analyst with ZapThink.
DataPower CTO Kuznetsov, who's worked on XML acceleration for four years, says a major shift is coming in the kinds of duties delegated to network gear.
"You are not going to want some shim software on a general-purpose server sitting in line with data-center traffic," Kuznetsov says. DataPower's XA35 XML accelerator and XS40 XML Security Gateway are true network devices, as opposed to another class of acceleration products that use hard drives in their boxes.
Regardless of design, vendors say the bottom line is savings in cost and performance.
"What we are talking about is millions of dollars in savings by moving to better throughput, better response and a more effective way to scale," says John Chirapurath, co-founder and vice president of marketing for Sarvega. "The alternative is to throw more Unix or Windows boxes at the problem in order to scale up.
"An evolution in applications has always caused a revolution in networks. And that is no different here."