Users look to break app, network walls

Networld+Interop isn’t known as an application-oriented event, but many IT managers who attended last week’s conference in Las Vegas said the barriers between application developers and network specialists must come down so they can work together to avoid performance problems.

Heading off data-processing snags on e-commerce systems and other distributed applications that run across far-flung networks is a big challenge, they said and the same goes for pinpointing the cause of problems that do occur.

Joe Lacik, vice-president of information services at aircraft parts distributor Aviall Services Inc., said he learned that lesson the hard way after the Dallas-based company installed an online sales portal built around BroadVision Inc.’s e-commerce software in February last year.

For months afterward, Lacik said, Aviall suffered server failures and network clogs. “I felt almost helpless,” he said. “Here we’ve got this application that’s central to our entire business turnaround strategy, and I can’t put my finger on what’s going wrong with it.”

Finally, late last year, Lacik found a Java-based tool developed by Austin, Tex.-based Covasoft Inc. that troubleshoots software made by Redwood City, Calif.-based BroadVision. Aviall now suffers fewer outages on the e-commerce system and is better able to identify problems when they arise, he said.

In the wake of that experience, Lacik said he treats application rollouts as projects for the entire IT staff, not just individual development teams.

Bruce Alderson, a consultant at Pine Mountain Group Inc. in Groveland, Calif., said many users don’t bother to figure out how highly integrated and distributed applications will actually run on their networks.

“Stuff doesn’t work across high-latency networks unless you’ve properly designed and tested it,” he said. Alderson, who spoke during a session at the conference, added that the spread of virtual LANs and undocumented connections often makes traditional network mapping a nearly impossible task for IT managers.

Anthony Skipper, vice-president of architecture for Web services at Merrill Lynch and Co. in New York, came to Networld+Interop to demonstrate how the financial services firm plans to use Web services technology to integrate its various applications. For example, the company will make use of the XML-based Simple Object Access Protocol to pass messages between different systems.

But in advance of the project, Skipper made sure he bought Web services optimization software that’s designed to address performance issues and lighten CPU and network bandwidth usage by streamlining application paths. The tool, developed by Atlanta-based Chutney Inc., should be in place by year’s end, Skipper said.

“The instant you’ve got to scale really high, you’ve got to worry about the performance of your systems, and you’ve got to get something to help keep your costs down,” he said. “A big Web services deployment could create massive server overhead if you’re not careful.”

Bob Gleichauf, chief technical officer for the security division at Cisco Systems Inc., agreed that Web services in particular could pose new application performance problems for network engineers.

Web services technology is “going to create congestion issues, and it’s going to create security issues,” Gleichauf said. Users and vendors alike will have to learn how to fix problems as they occur, he added.

Networking vendors made a slew of announcements about 10 Gigabit Ethernet technology at Networld+Interop, but their plans didn’t generate much excitement among corporate IT managers at the conference.

“I don’t believe we have an application out there that’s going to demand that kind of bandwidth,” said Dan Weegar, director of technology services at Oak Brook, Ill.-based Advocate Health Care Inc., a US$2.5 billion not-for-profit company that operates eight hospitals in the Chicago area.

Anthony Skipper, vice president of architecture for Web services at Merrill Lynch, voiced a similar opinion. The 10 Gigabit Ethernet technology “is good for an [application service provider] or a [network] carrier, but I don’t think the rest of the world needs it right now,” he said.

Vendors such as 3Com Corp. in Santa Clara, Calif., and Nortel Networks Ltd. in Brampton, Ontario, detailed plans to offer 10 Gigabit Ethernet switches, while Intel Corp. announced a single-chip controller for the technology. In general, the vendors said they will be fully ready to push 10 Gigabit Ethernet equipment by the end of next year.

Robin Layland, an independent networking consultant in West Hartford, Conn., said he thinks the strategy behind last week’s announcements “is really more about trying to sell Gigabit [Ethernet] on the desktop.” To run that, he added, users need network bandwidths to be an order of magnitude larger in their data centers.

Bill Alderson, a consultant at Pine Mountain Group, said users whose networks are suffering from application performance problems shouldn’t assume that they can be fixed by just increasing bandwidth. Applications usually bog down more as a result of network complexity than because of speed limitations, he said.

Joe Lacik, vice-president of information services at Aviall Services, echoed that sentiment. “Nine out of 10 times the problem is that it’s a poorly written application, not that there’s a problem with the network,” Lacik said.