Cisco software prioritizes apps

Cisco Systems Inc. is offering users with end-to-end Cisco gear the ability to better-prioritize applications running over their networks.

Cisco and other vendors already offer so-called Layer 4 switches that prioritize services based on their Layer 4 TCP and User Datagram Protocol port numbers. But Cisco’s Network-Based Application Recognition (NBAR) software, part of the Cisco Content Networking initiative, actually reads into packets to identify application flows, Cisco said.

The Content Networking Initiative includes a variety of enhancements incorporated into IOS 12.0, which was released in November.

The advantage of reading into packets to identify flows is that some applications, including popular ERP package SAP R/3, don’t have standard port number designations, making application prioritization difficult.

“What Content Networking does is take it to the next level,” said Andrew Sage, Cisco Systems Canada Co.’s marketing manager. “You can look into Layers 4 to 7 and determine what kind of transaction or stream is actually going on.”

While Sage said Content Networking is based on standard protocols such as RSVP, 802.1p and 802.1Q, it will work only if there is Cisco gear deployed end-to-end, or if there are Cisco networks on either end of an extranet.

“Although it’s based on standard protocols, turning it on and coordinating both ends of the connection is something that’s done between Cisco products using this NBAR connection,” he explained.

Sage said the Content Networking initiative is especially important now that enterprises are putting mission-critical applications out onto the Internet.

“If applications are going to require specialized services, then the devices will have to be able to deliver those services,” he said.

Sage noted the NBAR architecture is flexible and allows network managers to program new modules or applications into NBAR when they are released.

“If SAP comes out with a new module, you can program that module into the NBAR set and you don’t have to re-boot the router,” Sage said.

Sage added that users who connect an extranet via a Cisco Powered Networking partner could derive additional benefits from Content Networking, but that users would still get some advantages from the new software even without a Cisco Powered partner.

Albert Daoust, an analyst with Evans Research in Toronto, said assuming that Content Networking works as it’s supposed to, it will be a real advantage to Cisco users.

“Other people talk about Layer 4 to Layer 7 switching, but they’re not giving priority to specific applications, but to any applications that happen to belong to a specific class of traffic,” Daoust said.

Daoust noted that Content Networking is a good way for Cisco to continue to get its customers to commit to Cisco equipment.

“Every feature they add makes it that much more complex and difficult to move away,” he said.

In addition to NBAR, Content Networking includes the following services: Cisco Multimedia Conference Manager, which prioritizes IP-based videoconferencing applications; Milti-Node Load Balancing, part of Cisco LocalDirector,

which distributes traffic across switches and routers for server load balancing; the Cisco Cache Rngine 500, a Web caching tool announced in September; Cisco QoS Policy Manager 1.1 is the tool managers use to implement NBAR.

NBAR is available on the Cisco 7100 and 7200 platforms and will roll out to other Cisco equipment in the future. The Multimedia Conference Manager is an IOS image that can be purchased starting at $3,634. The Multi-Node Load Balancing feature set can be added to LocalDirector for $7,900. The Cache Engine ranges from $7,892 to $71,100 and Policy Manager 1.1 is $15,792. All products are available now.

Cisco Canada can be reached at 416-216-8000 or at