IBM and Cisco Unite to Prioritize Network Traffic

The alliance between one-time

network rivals IBM Corp. and Cisco Systems Inc. is beginning to bear fruit.

Last week in a joint announcement, the companies said they had been working to make IBM S/390 mainframes and Cisco routers work together for improved load balancing and quality-of-service (QoS) features. The goal: to let users of Cisco-IBM gear gain greater reliability and availability for their IP networks, the companies say.

This is the first joint announcement since the companies inked a deal last summer in which IBM sold Cisco its IP and Ethernet routing and switching lines.

The deal is allowing greater cooperation between Cisco and the IBM server group - especially the S/390 mainframe division, the companies say.

For starters, Cisco now claims that modifications to its router software can boost IP traffic performance by up to 700% between its routers and IBM network-attached S/390 mainframes. Cisco has tweaked the IOS code that runs its devices to recognize priority headers on packets generated by the IBM S/390 IP stack. This offers an extra level of reliability for priority applications in an IP network.

For example, in tests the QoS modifications have reduced telnet traffic response times from 7 seconds to sub-second speed, Cisco says. Now a user running a key business transaction will have priority access to network bandwidth vs. a user just Web surfing, Cisco says.

IBM mainframe users may also find helpful a new IOS feature called Cisco MultiNode Load Balancing (MNLB). The MNLB technology lets Cisco devices automatically distribute IP traffic among an IBM Sysplex, or cluster of IBM mainframes.

Overseeing the MNLB devices and traffic is a dedicated Cisco service manager appliance. Using an agent, this appliance communicates with the IBM cluster's workload manager, software that gathers data on mainframe CPU utilization cycles. Armed with this information, the appliance matches a given router workload to the most appropriate CPUs on a mainframe.

Should there be a sudden surge of activity in the network, for example during a peak hour of trading at a brokerage house, the MLNB will dynamically start load-balancing the IP traffic to prevent overload and session outage. It can also perform high-speed failover in case a mainframe crashes.

Shared Medical Systems, which supplies IS services to 5,000 health companies worldwide, has done everything possible from an operational approach to improve network availability and traffic speeds, says Dan Emig, an IS manager. The next step is to consider new technologies to boost performance - such as those IBM and Cisco have announced.

The company has eight IBM S/390 boxes and about 1,000 Cisco routers in its net to cater to the 300,000 users who log on daily to Shared Medical's network. The company is now considering exploiting these new IOS features, Emig says. The IBM-Cisco alliance has been beneficial: Users are able to get a single clear message from both companies, he says.

The IP prioritization and MNLB features are available now as part of IOS 12.05 t.

Cisco: www.cisco.com; IBM: www. ibm.com.

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