Internet traffic management – building a better Web

When considering implementing Internet traffic management, traffic needs to be analysed in a more advanced way than merely pushing packets from switch to server. Depending on whom you talk to, the best solution for streamlining your data traffic is a web, smart or content switch

The Web may well be the shopping centre of the future, but if all the shops are overcrowded and service is poor, customers may well go elsewhere. Internet traffic management is one possible solution.

When considering implementing an Internet Traffic Management (ITM) solution, traffic needs to be analysed in a more advanced way than merely pushing packets from switch to server. Depending on whom you talk to, the best solution for streamlining your data traffic, whether for your Internet business or corporate intranet, is a web, smart or content switch.

The principle behind a content switch is relatively simple. Like a normal data switch, packets can be routed to servers, IP devices or different parts of the network. With a content switch, the switch itself is smart enough to look at the content and based on software policy decided by the users, it will then intelligently move packets based on many factors such as priority, load balancing or security.

A good example would be a web site with a mixture of free and pay-per-view content. With a content switch in place, you could look at what type of information is being accessed and, in times of high demand, assign dedicated bandwidth or priority to users accessing the pay-per-view content. Another good example of content switching revolves around load balancing and scalability. Instead of each server taking a hit as SSL connection requests are made, a content switch would look at each SSL request and push them to a dedicated SSL server or appliance. If demand is very high, the content switch would intelligently balance the load across several servers or even rationing SSL connections based on the priority of the user making the request. The metering of services is starting to become essential for revenue streams and content switches are perfect for these types of services.

Cisco's dominance in this field is not as complete as in the dumb switch market. A notable competitor is F5 who continue to push the technology envelope while winning prestige contracts. In a recent interview with ComputerWeekly.com, F5's Steve Goldman, VP of sales and Dave Gill, European director, offered an insight in to this growing market.

"We've been in this market for around four years and we have seen a definite market shift towards content switching, fuelled in part by growth of web businesses trying to get that competitive edge," Goldman comments. "In fact we've seen our business grow by around 20b per cent every quarter for the last 11 quarters without fail."

The trigger for a lot of this growth was an advance in processors powering the ASICs used for examining and processing data packets. Before this, the switches were not up to wire-speed decision-making, reducing overall throughput. The ASICs were also very expensive to produce and often found to be less than reliable. This changed when a lower cost, highly programmable ASIC was developed, which in turn allowed companies like F5 and Alteon to produce smart switches able to function at wire speed with only a slight cost premium.

"There was a time when 'always on' was enough for many businesses," Goldman muses. "As vendors offering content switches, trying to sell our products into the market of four years ago was a challenge. This changed a lot with the rise of the dotcoms. 'Always on' wasn't enough; the market now wanted services and features from switching."

Goldman's views are borne out by figures from IDC and Meta Group, which show a trend towards deployment of layer four and seven switches over simple switches that use just the MAC address.

The market is changing, as F5 EMEA director, Dave Gill points out. "We have seen the market shifting with the introduction of new types of data streams. Video, WAP and VoIP are becoming integral to the Internet and intranets. This means that our current generation products are designed to work with these data types and due to the upgradability of the firmware, as new data types emerge, customers are not forced into constantly upgrading hardware but instead can change the embedded software."

"We are now starting to provide dedicated appliances which hang off our BigIP product (content switch), such as the dedicated SSL and firewall products," continues Gill. "I believe that their popularity is due to the scalability they offer while relieving some of the pressure of core servers."

One of the most aggressive and forward-thinking companies in this space is CyberIQ. Although a smaller player, John Maddison the VP of Marketing is candid about the future of the market.

"About four years ago, Cisco had around 80 per cent of the market. This started to slip drastically, so in response they bought ArrowPoint both to increase market share and to add to their technology portfolio, but they haven't got complete market dominance or even a technology lead." Even though content switching is pushing the market, many customers still equate the technology with load balancing. Maddison agrees: "Load balancing is a good way for customers to start out with Internet traffic management. The benefits are tangible. For example, instead of a couple of powerful Sun boxes, you can instead deploy a rack full of low-cost Linux machines and let the load balancer do its job. To the user and administrator, it's seamless and it keeps the accountants happy as well."

Some vendors give the idea that deploying content switches is a simple job. "To say that a deploying a content switch would be simple is not completely accurate," Madison states. "Some vendors may give that impression but as the complexity of the implementation solution increases, so do the complexity settings within the switch. We and a few of our competitors have chosen a more policy-based approach that reduces some of the more technical headaches. However a user can still get into the guts and customise to meet their needs."

Part of Madison's openness when compared to some in the market is due to CyberIQ's privately-owned status. However, with similarly sized PLC rivals generating millions from IPOs, CyberIQ's status may well change. "This is an exciting market. Speculation about IPOs and whether players like Lucent and Nortel will buy into this growing market all help to raise awareness. The requirements of business are changing and many of these changes are creating new customers who need ITM. The next big battleground will be security services like SSL and PKI appliances and this will see many customers look to content switching to provide a more flexible solution," comments Maddison.

The healthy competition in this market is producing some innovative products that in turn are making the Internet a more reliable place to do business. If you are charged with providing Internet services for your company, e-commerce site or intranet, you need to look at content switching. For the smaller SME, content switching will be a poor return on investment. But for the ASP and ISP, the real value of this new generation of switching is in providing metered services based on different performance levels. This is one of the biggest advantages of content switches and may ultimately see the market forgoing the layer 2 switch altogether.

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