Can you beat the Internet traffic?

Many companies make the mistake of believing that a Web site and an ISP agreement equals a fully-fledged e-business. Opening up...

Many companies make the mistake of believing that a Web site and an ISP agreement equals a fully-fledged e-business. Opening up the doors to virtual trading, however, is likely to open a can of worms in terms of fulfilling business transactions and meeting the raised levels of customer service expectations.

Customer expectations brought about in the age of e-business might go some way to explaining the rash of products arriving on the market that promise to “do a DHL” for data delivery - that is, guarantee delivery of your Internet traffic to the right person at the right time.

Analysts and users agree that the biggest problem curtailing e-business is that the Internet is still slow and unreliable.

According to Gartner, even by 2005 fewer than 20% of mission-critical Web applications will achieve 24x7 availability. The demise of the first Boo.com is in part attributable to a clumsy web site, described as “painfully slow” by many users, that made no provision for managing traffic loads.

Certainly, the market for Internet traffic management (ITM) tools is growing rapidly according to analysts at IDC, who predict a market worth $14bn (£9.8bn) by 2004. Tools that smooth out traffic surges and allocate Web page requests to spare resources range from content caching, to packet shaping and performance measurement.

Any ISP worth its salt has already implemented these measures and should already be investigating the latest ITM technologies such as layer 7 switching. But ITM is no longer the sole domain of ISPs and carriers. Getting Web data to end-users on time has become an urgent concern for business users who wish to maintain good relationships with customers and suppliers.

Russell Hookway is a network administrator who has gone down this route. As network manager for the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, he is responsible for providing infrastructure to support the council’s intranet and Web sites and ensure connectivity in schools and libraries within the borough.

Prompted by the “joined-up-government” initiative, which requires public sector workers to conduct a large portion of their daily tasks via the Internet or e-mail, Hookway decided to explore traffic management options. A more urgent catalyst was the everyday headache of assigning bandwidth to the various applications and departments. “It was possible with our existing hardware but it is complex and time consuming,” he explained. The council deployed Packeteer’s Packetshaper in conjunction with existing Nortel switches and Hewlett-Packard’s Openview software. “The technology allows me to simply allocate resources between Web traffic, applications and the various sites we support,” said Hookway. “It seems to have worked very well so far”.

Among the emerging ITM solutions is the Internet Global Positioning System (I-GPS). The system uses a configuration of smart boxes called constellations at the ISP end. These link to smaller probes at the content provider’s host facilities around the world. Each constellation is aware of the status of each probe and automatically routes data to the server best able to deal with a user request. This system of constellations and probes, if deployed in depth, can provide a method of establishing Internet “weather” conditions. Raj Sharma, CEO and founder of HydraWeb, explained the potential role of the technology. “A user sending a request to the Web site may have a single Web address, such as www.stockprices.com, but actually has servers in a dozen locations around the world. “When the request reaches the Web site, the I-GPS system analyses the request and the current weather conditions on the Internet, before sending the request to the most appropriate server. If one of stockprices.com’s servers should fail, again the GPS system will be made aware of this situation via a probe and route the request accordingly.”

One shortfall of the Hydra technology, acknowledged by its supplier, is the lack of a return path. GPS may well improve the chances of sending data to the most appropriate server, but when the Web site returns the data it is pumped into the Internet. Consequently, GPS cannot guarantee that you will have a decent quality service for the entire experience. Iain Stevenson, principal analyst at Ovum, has a more general criticism of the ITM technologies on offer. “There are two aspects to traffic management. One is delivering content and the other is managing the network across which this content is delivered. One of our criticisms of the suppliers who claim to do a bit of everything is that they don’t join this stuff up,” he said.

Stevenson added that many suppliers are just providing a stop-gap solution for customers who only consider ITM when they have a problem. “It is still rarely a consideration at the start of a project,” he said.

“If you are an IT or Web site manager, you have a stark choice,” warned Stevenson. “You can look at your traffic flow and decide what is mission-critical and what isn’t. For mission-critical, you need to look for an ISP that will guarantee a quality of service backed up with financial penalties for failure.”

How to improve online performance

At the moment, there are six major technologies claiming to improve the Internet experience:

Content Caching

Much of the content pulled from the Internet is graphics or text that very rarely changes. Instead of pulling this static content from a distant server, suppliers, such as Akami and Footprint, suggest you place it on local servers spread around the globe. The benefits are a reduction in the demands on your Web servers and improved performance. The downside is the expense and its unsuitability for real-time data, such as share prices or transactional systems.

Packet Shaping

This evolved from the telecoms industry and allows an ISP or network manager to prioritise bandwidth depending on user, application or location. For example, if a Web site provides vital real-time information, requests can be prioritised over less important e-mail traffic.

Performance measurement.

Companies such as RadView and Lucent provide diagnostic tools for measuring both actual and simulated performance of Web sites and the networks they run on. These software and hardware solutions can be useful for diagnostic purposes but need to run continually to take changes in applications into account. These tools are not cheap and are overlooked by many potential customers keen to speed up the development process.

Layer-7 switches

An intelligent switch that enables network traffic to be routed according to the priority of its content. The policy would take into account the type of user, security requirement and type of content - customers who have opened a shopping basket could be given priority over those just browsing. This technology is the fastest growing and suppliers including Arrowpoint, F5, Alteon, Extreme Networks, CyberIQ are jostling for position.

(Global) Load balancing

Load balancing allows demand to be distributed across several local servers. The global version allows the load to be balanced across geographically separated servers. Load balancing is aimed at both ISPs and larger enterprise customers, while global load balancing is aimed at much larger organisations. Most of the big suppliers offer load balancing, including Alteon, F5 and Cisco.

This was last published in November 2000

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