Companies including 3Com and Cisco Systems are in the process of developing edge routing devices to embrace technologies such as deep-packet inspection in an effort to meet the emerging demands of Web-based applications. One of the products starting to offer application-aware networking is the VoIP (voice-over-IP) switch.
3Com gives voice traffic a boost
In May, 3Com announced its XRN 10 Gigabit Ethernet VoIP switch. The networking giant is in the midst of contemplating the impact of enterprise applications on the next generation of networking equipment.
Although its existing 10/100 Ethernet-based equipment is already "application aware", Patrick Guay, vice-president and general manager of 3Com's local area network infrastructure division, said the company was working to unify the code base across its product lines to ease configuration and management issues.
"Applications need to be able to signal their requests from the edge of the network," Guay said.
With 3Com rolling out its SuperStack 3 Switch 4400 SE, Guay said the company was hearing "noise from customers" about the need for application-aware switches.
3Com's first step on this path was to introduce field upgrade, application prioritisation, and VoIP management features in the 4400.
Guay said the company was in the process of producing a switch "to recognise different communities of applications at the edge of the network, but we are not there yet".
He believed that "more can be done" to develop edge switches capable of rerouting traffic based on application latency and service-level requirements.
The Cisco vision
Cisco, for its part, has conceded the importance of Web services to the development of multi-tenant application architectures.
Cisco chairman and chief executive officer John Chambers used his keynote address at the NetWorld+Interop 2002 show recently to highlight the need to develop a common architecture around security and applications to build out what he calls the "network virtual organisation".
Chambers and other senior executives later made one of their initial public statements of support for Web services. "[Web services] will change the way you do computing," Chambers said.
Although Cisco officials say that Web services will not, fundamentally, change the nature of packet flow through the network, network devices need to adopt filtering and prioritisation capabilities based on XML tags, said Bob Gleichauf, director of software development for security solutions.
Cisco's vision includes XML load balancing in the LAN and, ultimately, building out technologies to support "global routing of Web services", Gleichauf said.
Growth of XML-aware networking
Other companies pushing a similar agenda include Sarvega, DataPower Technology and Forum Systems, all of which announced XML-aware switches this year.
Company officials believe these technologies will follow in the footsteps of SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) accelerators, server load balancers, and content caching systems, serving as imperative edge devices.
Judy Estrin, chief executive officer of startup Packet Design, commented that while she served as chief technology officer at Cisco Systems, she and her team discussed edge-aware networking more than two years ago.
"We've talked for years about routers and their ability to differentiate packets and decide levels of quality of service," Estrin said. "It's still an interesting area, but we [the networking industry] try to make things too complex."
Estrin explained that routers are designed to route data and do it well, but vendors can build routers that can mark packets based on classification.
However, she said enterprises are still uncertain about the quality of service of such routers and how to deploy them.