Avoiding the traffic jams

In the e-business age, corporations will succeed or fail by the speed at which data passes over the Web. Will Garside assesses...

In the e-business age, corporations will succeed or fail by the speed at which data passes over the Web. Will Garside assesses the current technology available to optimise the delivery of information

In depth

Many companies make the mistake of believing that one website plus 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 raised levels of customer service expectations. This might explain 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 Group, even by 2005, fewer than 20 percent of mission-critical Web applications will achieve 24x7 availability. The demise of Boo.com (Version 1) is in part attributable to a clumsy website (described as "painfully slow" by many users) that made no provision for managing traffic loads.

Certainly the market for traffic management tools is growing rapidly, predicted to be worth $14bn by 2004 according to analysts IDC. Tools that smooth out traffic surges and allocate Web page requests to spare resources range from content caching, to packet shaping and performance measurement (see end of article).

Most ISPs worth their salt has already implemented these measures and are investigating newer traffic management techniques, such as layer-7 switching. But traffic management is no longer the sole domain of ISPs and carriers. Getting Web data to end users on time has become an urgent concern for users from the public and private business sectors who wish to maintain good relationships with customers and suppliers.

Russell Hookway is one IT professional manager 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, websites and connectivity for schools and libraries within the borough. Prompted by the joined-up-government initiative, which requires agents to conduct a large portion of our daily tasks via the Internet or email, 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", explains Hookway.

The council deployed Packeteer packet shapers in conjunction with its 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," says Hookway. "It seems to have worked very well so far," he concludes.

Among the emerging Internet traffic management solutions is Internet Global Positioning Systems (I-GPS). The system uses a configuration of smart boxes called constellations at the ISP end. These link to smaller probes at the host facilities belonging to content providers 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, uses the fictitious example of a financial website quoting the latest stock prices, to illustrate the potential role of the technology. "A user sending a request to a website may have a single web address, such as stockprices.com, but in fact has servers in a dozen locations around the world. When the request reaches the website, 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 server 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 HydraWeb technology, acknowledged by its vendor, is the lack of a return path. Using our fictional stockprices.com, GPS might well improve the chances of sending data to the most appropriate server. But when the website returns the data, this is pumped into the unpredictable Internet and consequently, GPS can't guarantee that you'll have a decent quality service for the entire experience.

Iain Stevenson, principal analyst at Ovum, has a more general criticism of the traffic management 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 on. One of our criticisms of the vendors who claim to do a bit of everything is that they don't join this stuff up." Stevenson complains that many of these vendors are providing a 'stop gap solution' for customers who only consider ITM when they have a problem. "It still rarely a consideration at the start of a project" he comments.

"If you're a IT or website manager, you have a stark choice," warns Stevenson. "You can look at your traffic flow and decide what 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."

Improving the flow - major technologies claiming to improve the Internet experience

Content Caching

Much of the content pulled from the Internet is static graphics or text, which very rarely changes. Instead of pulling this content from a distant server, suppliers such as Akami and Footprint suggest you place this content on local servers spread across the globe. The benefits of this are to reduce the demand on your web servers and to improve performance. The downside is that it is expensive and the system is not effective for real-time data such as share prices or transactional systems.

Packet Shaping

This technology evolved from the telecomms industry and allows an ISP or network manager to prioritise bandwidth depending on user, application or location. For example if you have an Intranet or Website that provides vital real-time information, you could prioritise requests to this website over less important email traffic.

Performance measurement

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

Layer-7 switches

Basically an intelligent switch that enables Internet and network traffic to be routed according to the priority of its content. The policy takes into account the type of user, security requirement and the nature of the content. Customers who have opened a shopping basket could be given priority over those just browsing. This technology is the fastest growing and vendors such as Arrowpoint, F5, Alteon, Extreme networks and CyberIQ are jostling for position.

(Global) Load balancing

Load balancing allows you to distribute demand evenly over several local servers. The newer global version allows you to balance load across geographically distant servers. Load balancing is a proven technology aimed at both ISP and larger enterprise customers, while global load balancing aims at much larger organisations. Most of the big vendors offer load balancing, including Alteon, F5 and Cisco.

Will Garside

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