Cisco gets the message and looks to develop XML

Cisco for years has talked about moving “up the stack”: taking on more application-based network roles instead of just moving packets at Layers 2 and 3. The recent launch of Cisco’s Application-Oriented Network (AON) business unit is the latest move in this direction, with the introduction of hardware and software that can read XML message traffic and route whole messages instead of just packets.

But instead of buying its way into the XML market, Cisco has hired Taf Anthias, a 32-year IBM veteran and former head of its MQ messaging group, to lead the internal development of XML and message-based switching technology. Anthias serves as vice-president of Cisco’s AON business unit, and spoke with Network World (U.S.) Senior Editor Phil Hochmuth about the vendor’s latest data centre initiative.

When Cisco moves into new markets, such as telephony or storage, this sometimes forces customers to reorganize IT responsibilities, such as shifting voice management from a company’s telecom group to the networking group. How will AON affect the network staff and other groups that manage applications and data centre equipment in large businesses?

From lessons like voice and storage, we’ve learned a lot about how new kinds of products are accepted by customers, and who we are actually going to be selling to. Among our customers, we find a clear delineation of roles between network groups and applications management groups. So there are two separate sides.

The networking group doesn’t necessarily control certain pieces of network equipment, such as load balancers or data centre switches. And it’s not the application group’s responsibility to control what’s inside a switch or router. But the deployment of AON-based products will involve both groups.

They do need to work together. Now the job of the networking group will be to push AON policies to the switch. So there will have to be some kind of a handover point from the applications group to the network staff. It is a shift, which can be valuable, but we’re not going to force it artificially on customers that are not ready.

By bringing middleware functions into network hardware, is Cisco potentially taking away business from the software vendors you’re planning to partner with?

Potentially there could have been some kind of issue there if we did not bring in the partners we did early on in the process. Because we reached out to everyone, we were able to determine where this kind of technology makes sense. This is not about force-fitting anything. From a middleware vendor’s perspective, this is a useful technology they can use to help customers. We have very productive relationships with IBM and Tibco, and others will develop over time. So I don’t see a conflict. You can always ask this kind of question when you’re in an evolutionary point in the industry.

When middleware vendors see the value AON provides them, the benefits will be clear. There are so many problems to be addressed in Web services and SOA applications. The entire pie of potential IT spend on technology and services for tying applications together is so large, it way exceeds any kind of revenue that these vendors would see by installing middleware servers that do the tasks that AON products perform. There’s plenty of IT spend to go around for everyone.

What is the technical advantage of an AON blade in a router or switch vs. an IBM BladeCentre running middleware software?

There are a number of advantages of an integrated network offering. One of them is the consolidation you have in the switch in the data centre somewhere. You could already have a switch in the DMZ or behind the firewall. So that’s the point at which you can enforce policies. There’s no way of getting around that — you have to go through those switches in the network. In the other model, XML traffic has to be specifically sent to the software running on a blade server. And do you really want to put a BladeCentre in the DMZ? You also have special-purpose hardware with the Catalyst switches and routers. Those are routing systems that have been designed to put more and more services into them, whereas BladeCenter equipment is basically a general-purpose computing platform. We’ll also be introducing specialized hardware appliances later on this year to run AON services, which can run inside the data centre with servers.

What is the difference between what AON does and Layer 7 switching?

Layer 7 switching doesn’t really speak the language of applications. It’s like someone from England who goes to France. You might go to France and be able to say “bonjour,” “oui” and “non,” and you might be able to manage. And that knowledge is invaluable, just speaking those few words can get you by. But you can’t really get a job in France with that, like if you wanted to become a psychiatrist in France. So you have to understand the whole language. So that’s the big difference; AON products understand the actual message content, not just the HTTP headers here and there.

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