With "application oriented networking", Cisco aims to improve performance through closer interaction between the network and the applications that run on it.
At the Netevents symposium last year, I asked Bob Metcalfe, co-inventor of Ethernet and the keynote speaker, "Why have networking and Ethernet evolved without the software applications themselves ever becoming part of the network, and when will we see this happen?"
His answer was that he had never really given it any thought. Given that one of the primary, initial objectives of Ethernet was to allow printers to be shared by several computers, it is easy to see why the subject of intelligent interaction between the network and applications never came up in the early days. However, that was the late 1970s and this is 2005.
Moreover, Broadband-Testing Labs has been carrying out tests regularly on Layer 4-7 networking devices over the past few years, attempting to enable some level of interaction between network and application, such as bandwidth optimisation and rule-based preferential treatment for specific applications or data types.
Now, with application oriented networking (AON), Cisco is looking to take this approach to bonding the applications with the network a stage further.
In what is effectively phase three of Cisco's grandly titled Intelligent Information Networking design, the aim is for the network to interact directly with the applications at what it defines as message level - ie Layer 7 - so that the flow of application information is made more efficient, more readily available to users, more secure and more intelligent.
Technically, it involves looking at the payload of a packet and manipulating that data in a single action, depending on what the requirements are, reducing the number of different actions typically that would be required at different layers of the OSI (Open System Interconnection) stack, to achieve the same functionality.
So it optimises as well as adding the cerebral element. It also starts to move networking into the realms of software, not hardware. At this point, network product suppliers may finally have to admit to what we all already know - that networking hardware is a commodity.
Anyone can buy the parts, snap them together, download some freeware, and make their own managed gigabit switch in an afternoon. The reason people do not do it is that the ready-made item is cheaper. You might call it the Ikea mentality applied to networking. Networking then, or at least the critical components thereof, becomes software.
This is a logical leap forward when the aim is to integrate applications and the networking element. Vitally, concepts such as AON do not involve existing applications being changed to be optimised by the network. Rather, the network takes them as they are and improves them.
Phil Dean, regional manager of applications networking at Cisco, believes AON is essential in the move towards a service oriented architecture (SOA) approach to networking. With an SOA, intelligent elements such as quality of service must be "plugged in" to the network by default for the network to identify each application and make intelligent networking decisions on its behalf.
"If you only have three applications on the network, it is not a big deal; if you have tens, it is still not too bad; but if you have hundreds, as many companies now have, the SOA approach is the only way forward," Dean said.
"For example, when you have common requirements with networking applications for things such as XML, security and application routing, if you are not careful you end up with a conga line of different products to handle all this. The result is complexity and delay, the information has to go up and back down the stack again, whereas it needs to be all on a single product with multiple functions embedded in the network."
Cisco's answer is to put this software technology into its networking devices, which then allows resilience and redundancy to be added to the intelligent data manipulation "engine", so we have a real networked solution.
However, Dean made it clear that AON is "not a shrink-wrap product". It is partly a methodology, a means to enable Cisco, in conjunction with software partners - SAP is one of the early ones, for example - to make network applications intelligent and more efficient, but with a degree of hard-coding to transfer an ideological theory into something more concrete.
AON, which is in beta format, is undoubtedly a major step in the right direction for Cisco and partners, but it is not a new concept. Broadband-Testing has been doing this kind of traffic management and network application optimisation in testing with Layer 7 product suppliers such as F5 Networks and, more recently, UK-based Zeus, for several years. F5's iRules and Zeus' Trafficscript functions both offer ways to manipulate and interact with network applications directly, making them intelligent and "network aware".
But Cisco can legitimise the concept, in the way that seemingly only the giants of IT and networking can do.
Both Gartner and IDC analysts have been positive about the benefits of web and Wan-based application acceleration and optimisation. These forecasts have prompted Cisco, as well as Juniper, F5 and even Citrix to spend the best part of $1bn between them on web acceleration/optimisation product and technology acquisitions this summer. So, are they right to do so?
The reality is that applications designed to be run on mainframe and mid-range host systems do not take kindly to the bandwidth limitations and latencies of wide area networking. They need all the accelerative help they can get. The first "enterprise" application supplier that publicly acknowledges this and bolts on Layer 7 acceleration directly will clean up. You read it here first.
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 several projects in the broadband, mobile, network management and wireless Lan areas, from product testing to service design and implementation.