Can you beat the Internet log jam?

Increasing online traffic can hit your business hard, Will Garside examines tools that let you bypass congestion

Increasing online traffic can hit your business hard, Will Garside examines tools that let you bypass congestion

Many companies make the mistake of believing that a website and an Internet service provider 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.

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 research company Gartner Group, by 2005 less 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 website - 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 savvy ISP 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 a concern for business users wishing to maintain relationships with customers and suppliers.

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

Prompted by the 'joined-up-government' initiative, which requires public-sector staff to conduct much of their daily tasks via the Internet or email, Hookway decided to explore traffic-management options. A more urgent catalyst was the daily headache of assigning bandwidth to the various departments. "It was possible with our existing hardware, but it is complex and time-consuming," he explains.

The council deployed Packeteer's Packetshaper, in conjunction with existing Nortel switches and Hewlett-Packard's Openview software. "The technology lets me allocate resources between Web traffic, applications and the various sites we support," says Hookway. "It seems to have worked well so far."

Among the emerging ITM solutions is the Internet Global Positioning System (I-GPS), which uses a configuration of smart boxes called constellations at the ISP end. These link to smaller probes at the content provider's host facilities. Each constellation is aware of the status of each probe and 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, chief executive and founder of HydraWeb, explains the potential role of the technology. "A user sending a request to the website 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 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 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," he says.

One shortfall of the Hydra technology is the lack of a return path. GPS may well improve the chances of sending data to the most appropriate server, but when the website returns the data it is pumped into the Internet. Consequently, GPS cannot guarantee a decent-quality service for the entire experience.

Iain Stevenson, principal analyst at Ovum, has a more general criticism of ITM technologies. "There are two aspects to traffic management: delivering content and managing the network across which this content is delivered. Suppliers that claim to do a bit of everything don't join this stuff up," he says.

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

"If you are an IT or website manager, you have a stark choice," warns 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."

Improve online performance

The following five technologies currently claim to improve the Internet experience.

  • Content Caching
    Much of the content pulled from the Internet is graphics or text that rarely changes. Instead of pulling this static content from a distant server, suppliers such as Akamai 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.

  • 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 website provides vital real-time information, requests can be prioritised over less important email traffic.

    Performance measurement
    Companies such as RadView and Lucent provide diagnostic tools for measuring both the actual and simulated performance of websites and the networks they run on. These solutions can be useful for diagnostic purposes but need to run continually to take changes in applications into account.

  • Layer-7 switches
    An intelligent switch that enables network traffic to be routed according to content priority. 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.

  • Load balancing (Global)
    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.

  • Read more on Business applications

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