The right connections

Companies are turning to the web to run applications in the drive for greater flexibility and reduced costs, but many are unsure...

With companies increasingly relying on the web to run their businesses, there is growing pressure on the server infrastructures that they use, with performance degradation becoming a wider problem. An average company in the top 100 is probably using about 1,000 unique applications and, since most applications are expected to be considered for web-based working at some time, performance is an issue that has to be addressed.

For the Computer Weekly/Redline Networks Survey, 500 senior IT staff - including managers, directors and project leaders - were questioned as to what progress their organisation had made in its drive to web-enable the business. Of the companies polled 70% employed more than 1,500 people.

When asked when their firms planned to make business applications available through the web to employees, almost 50% said they already did so, and 20% said they would do so by the end of 2005.

But although the adoption of web-based applications is clearly becoming popular, almost 25% of firms said they had no plans to use them.

Of those that were keen on the idea, 31% said they would make applications available to workers through an intranet, 54% would use the internet, and 24% would provide access through an extranet.

When asked why companies use web applications, 73% said it was because it made their organisations more flexible and 54% because it made the management of legacy systems easier. In addition, 50% of respondents said it helped them to cut computing costs, 44% said it made them more responsive to customers, and 43% said it boosted employee productivity.

When asked which applications should be made available through the web, companies listed databases (78%), customer relationship management (53%), and enterprise resource planning(36%). Security factors topped the list of deterrents to using web application services at 27% and 19% of respondents cited management culture and current practices.

Integration difficulties were seen as a deterrent by 13%, and 12% said the lack of available bandwidth was a factor. Cost of implementation and maintenance was cited by 10%.

When firms had to list the strategies they could adopt to improve the performance of web applications, 71% said increased network bandwidth was the answer, while 53% said more storage capacity would help.

About 41% said they needed faster processors and 29% wanted storage management software.

When staff connect to the company network via wireless technology for business applications, 86% of firms said they expected users to do so in order to access e-mail and 64% said access to the web was a main reason. Also, when using wireless, 55% said access to a database was common, and 25% said CRM was too, with 17% connecting for access to ERP services.

On the security of web-based applications, 45% said they were "very concerned", and 44% were "fairly concerned". Only 9% said they were "not very concerned".

The key considerations for firms using web-based technologies for accessing business applications over the next 12 months were security (58%), speed and performance (16%), ease of use (11%), and reliability (10%).

About 80% of firms said they managed their network applications internally, and only 16% had outsourced them.

One increasingly popular solution to the challenge posed by web-enabling the enterprise is web acceleration technology, which can be used to improve the performance of web servers for online customers and/or to make business-critical applications available to employees.

Steve Broadhead, a director at Broadband Testing, which analyses network infrastructure systems, confirms the importance of web acceleration systems.

"There are banks, for instance, with many of thousands of employees, which are suffering from 30-second response times when it comes to accessing applications such as an Oracle database," he says. "As a result, they are spending millions on extra hardware and software to speed up the process."

Paul Gracie, European sales director of Redline Networks, which sells web acceleration products, says, "The survey reflects what we are seeing in the market. And while the majority of our clients have some browser/ web-based applications deployed, within the next two or three years they anticipate they will have more than 75% of their applications accessed via a browser front-end."

Gracie said, "Many firms are looking at the traditional response to adding new feature-rich web applications by negotiating with their bandwidth provider for more bandwidth, which can prove expensive.

"A major challenge for companies in the web acceleration market is to educate customers about the alternatives to bandwidth provision, such as using intelligent caching, HTTP compression and TCP connection management."

Peter Christy, an analyst at NetsEdge Research Group, says, "As the internet increases in importance, the value of web acceleration grows.

"It is increasingly clear that neither simple over-provisioning of server capacity nor dependence on brute force delivery [through more bandwidth] is the smart way of addressing the issues, especially considering the compounding complexity and operational burden when more servers or systems are added."

Mark Fabbi, an analyst at Gartner, says, "The combination of connection management and compression significantly reduces server processes, delivering improved performance to end-users and reduced bandwidth use."

Fabbi said worldwide sales of web acceleration technology were about £300m last year. There are a number of players in the market, usually offering a combination of specialist software products running on dedicated appliances.

As well as niche players such as F5, Redline, Radware, and NetScaler, the likes of Cisco and Nortel are also active.

Typically, a web acceleration appliance will sit between an enterprise’s security firewall and its applications to provide a more efficient data processing and security platform.

F5’s main product is Big-IP, which supports data traffic management software such as data compression, load balancing and Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) security acceleration on a single appliance.

New features in the recently launched Version 9 of the product include "rate shaping" capabilities, which are designed to deliver appropriate bandwidth to high priority applications.

Big-IP Version 9 runs on a range of appliances. Redline’s E/X and T/X appliance ranges offload processing power from application and web servers to deliver the required increased performance.

Redline’s 3G Cache software tool, which combines with other tools, frequently offloads used data from servers to speed up overall data processing. The 3G Cache software operates on Redline’s E/X 3250 appliance.

A Butler Group Technology report found that, "Any organisation that offers web-based services to customers, particularly via standard enterprise applications such as PeopleSoft, SAP, Siebel and Lotus iNotes, could benefit significantly from web acceleration."

Alan Rodger, Butler analyst and author, of the report, said, "Web-based application architectures have a number of inherent vulnerabilities, which have commonly been addressed by numerous individual solutions.

"Web acceleration technology [providing key functions on a single platform] can reduce the burden on web servers and security servers, reduce bandwidth requirements, increase security, and enhance application performance and flexibility," he said.

Computer Weekly in association with Redline Networks is planning to host a free London event to discuss network applications and the research results. To register your interest in attending, click here>>

John Lewis speeds up applications and cuts bandwidth costs

John Lewis Partnership is using Redline Networks’ T/X enterprise application processor to improve the performance and availability of its customer service applications.

The product is being used to decrease connection times and increase performance between the company’s shops and head office and to reduce bandwidth costs by £30,000 a year.

John Lewis found its existing network infrastructure was having problems coping with rising demand for its customer service applications.

With new functionality being added, the company was looking for a product to improve the performance of its web-based support applications. It looked at appliance-based compression products from Packeteer and XCache, as well as server-based software alternatives.

John Lewis chose Redline - via its integrator Azzurri Networks - because of its "ease of integration and unique platform".

Redline enterprise application processors were put between the existing load-balancing and datacentre equipment, which included Apache web servers.

Mark Denyer, network technical manager at John Lewis, said, "In terms of implementation, this was quick and straightforward. Once the Redline systems were turned on, we saw an immediate and significant reduction in Wan traffic and faster response times."

Denyer said, "Our bandwidth usage graphs show a clear reduction in bandwidth used following the Redline implementation, and this has resulted in savings of £30,000 a year. And as we have rolled this out to all our branches, many users have commented on the performance improvements."

John Lewis also says it is saving about 3Gbytes of bandwidth data per day by using the Redline appliances.

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