Running enterprise software over a Wan or the internet can be expensive and less than satisfactory. Could an innovative new approach be the answer?
Unlimited bandwidth was the promise made by many networking suppliers, carriers and service providers a few years ago, so where is this "superhighway"?
Today, bandwidth is far from unlimited once you get beyond the limits of the internal network. Moreover, the huge applications such as databases, enterprise resource planning, customer relationship management and accounting which are designed to be run across high-bandwidth links are now also being pushed out across the internet and other low-bandwidth connections.
Consequently, enterprise software is being used within and outside company offices, even if performance is somewhat lacking.
Over the past few months, I have seen a number of hardware products where the aim, wholly or partially, is to accelerate the performance of enterprise applications, especially when running across the internet or a low-bandwidth Wan connection. For example, Redline Networks' Layer 7 traffic accelerator has been designed with this job in mind.
A survey commissioned by Redline Networks found that web-enabled application delivery is creating serious challenges for the 92% of enterprises that are using this method.
Organisations are spending hundreds of thousands of pounds to fix performance, security and other problems associated with transition to web-enabled versions of enterprise applications. However, despite the cost, more than 50% of users said they were still either in the planning stages of addressing the problems or simply "living with the pain".
More than 60% of companies said application performance suffered and security risks grew following the move from client-server application models to web-enabled approaches.
Beyond the cost of deploying the applications, users said that to deal with the problems they had spent an average of more than £110,000 - and in some cases over £270,000 - chiefly on network and firewall upgrades, additional server capacity and web-tier point products.
So not only are you expected to shell out millions of pounds for several software applications and development platforms - each of which you have to integrate - but you then have to spend even more and add extra complexity to your network to achieve a reasonable (usable) level of performance.
The problem is not new. When Citrix and other suppliers popularised the thin-client approach - and Lan speeds were typically lower than they are today - many users attempted to improve their application performance by switching to a thin client architecture to improve network performance.
Citrix handled the GUI for the client part of he enterprise system, which was located physically next to the database server to reduce latency. Add web access to this, and it became much more difficult to guarantee any kind of decent performance when using enterprise software.
Sounds perverse doesn't it? Yet millions of companies have committed themselves to exactly this scenario. The enterprise software market is worth about £13bn a year according to analysts, so someone is spending big money despite the performance issues. This has led to a new wave of networking hardware suppliers working at Layer 7, such as NetScaler.
"Enterprise software generally brings some hefty overheads and complex issues in terms of network infrastructure," said Mark Edge, NetScaler's director of operations EMEA.
"One of the big challenges in rolling out enterprise software hinges around Wan performance. There is been a big migration to Wan, yet most enterprise applications are simply not geared to it."
So, although it seems there are some answers to the enterprise software speed issues, they involve yet more investment and added complexity in the network.
One route that many larger companies, notably in the banking sector, have been forced down, is to do everything in-house, developing as much as possible in a bespoke fashion to achieve the required performance and reliability levels.
Yet this approach also has its problems, as one source from a banking group in the City observed, having had "bitter experience of late-running, over-budget, under-performing in-house builds". Another gripe was the lack of flexibility when it came to requests for minor functionality changes, new data fields and similar updates.
An alternative would be to take a different approach to enterprise software. One example I have seen in pre-release form (due to be launched this autumn) is the Thingamy. According to the manufacturer, this is a "fresh from the ground-up" approach to redefining enterprise software with an internet-oriented way of working in mind, being totally browser-based and data efficient. Initial in-house tests have shown it to be thousands of times faster than an equivalent Oracle database.
Sigurd Rinde of Thingamy believes the only real solution is radical change, so the company is developing what he described as a complete business modelling and development application, designed to replace any and all of the existing enterprise applications with a single product and a single methodology for all business application development.
It is clearly an ambitious concept, but one that many would argue is long overdue. Rinde's approach is to start off by looking at what enterprise users are doing to try to run their business on computer networks.
"Is there any good reason why we run our businesses as we do? Might there be an alternative? Why do billions of management consultant hours get paid, millions of management handbooks get sold and unbelievable sums get spent on research and education of managers, yet it does not get us moving forward by leaps and bounds? It is surely time to question this logic," Rinde said.
He cited companies such as Amazon, Dell and EasyJet as successful companies that have embraced back-end computer systems and the internet to move their businesses forward. They have done this by building their own systems from scratch, by not relying on outmoded business models and processes or holding on to classic organisational hierarchies and culture concepts, but by redefining these "virtual" structures with a real, ground-up, business model, Rinde said.
One beta user of Thingamy has already observed a positive reaction to his customers' experience of the system developed using the software, noting that not only did they find it easy to use, but that it saved time by having the information presented in the way it was. Another user noted that a start-to-finish process that normally took hours was completed in just eight minutes.
Whether the Thingamy approach will work, only time will tell, but at least one supplier is being enterprising enough to challenge the long-accepted way of the enterprise application and its new role as a web-based tool.
Steve Broadhead, Broadband-Testing
Steve Broadhead runs Broadband-Testing Labs, a spin-off from independent test organisation the NSS Group. Author of DSL and Metro Ethernet reports, Broadhead is now involved in a number of projects in the broadband, mobile, network management and wireless Lan areas, from product testing to service design and implementation. www.broadband-testing.co.uk