Web acceleration gear gets a boost

If last month’s NetWorld+Interop 2000 demonstrations were any indication, users looking for ways to simplify the management of their e-commerce sites and speed response times will get a lot more options from vendors this year.

More than two dozen caching, load-balancing and Web switch companies showed they are starting to pack more features into their devices. Among those in attendance were:

ArrowPoint Communications Inc., Alteon Websystems Inc. and F5 Networks Inc., which showed off gear including load balancers that invoke caching based on user demand.

Intel Corp., which exhibited traffic managers that focus on particular types of applications, such as Web and XML-based transactions.

Top Layer Networks, which said it will add application load balancing to the software that runs its switches in June.

NetScaler Inc., which announced WebScaler, a hardware and software package designed to allow for multiple persistent Web sessions in order to increase response times for requests.

Rainfinity, which unveiled Rainfront, software for combining firewall and traffic management functions.

Observers say the bottom line for end users will be better response times for their Web sites and easier ways to manage the complex technologies behind them. The performance gains will be realized through devices that can route user requests more quickly and accurately by looking deeper into packets. The ease of management will stem from built-in software features that can automate processes such as deciding which content should be served from a server on the fly or stored for immediate delivery.

The race to make devices and the software that runs them more intelligently is unlikely to be won outright by any single vendor, according to Joel Yaffe, an analyst with Giga Information Group Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. Instead, vendors will focus on delivering features that differentiate their equipment from the competition and play catch-up with each other.

For example, Intel and Alteon separately said they are developing technologies that can peer into applications, such as those used for database transactions, and speed them up. By optimizing devices to manage traffic based on granular attributes such as application type, the vendors claim they will provide companies with better ways of delivering quality-of-service guarantees to end users.

“To load balance and create better availability of applications requires more than what [switches] are doing right now,” says Ted Schroeder, a senior product engineer for Alteon. “But to do that, we need to have a deeper understanding of what applications are running in the background, such as Citrix Systems Inc. or Oracle Corp. databases. The protocols are very complex, and we have to be able to do more with them to manage the flow of data.”

Companies are also trying to find ways to combine features in such a way that equipment from different vendors can work together, and in some cases, eliminate multiple pieces of hardware, says Alistair Croll, an analyst with Networkshop in Montreal.

“In the cache space, vendors are increasing features that allow for both static and streaming content, along with recognizing more network protocols and performing functions such as virus scanning,” he says.

Then there’s Rainfinity, which has released software that lets network managers combine firewall capabilities and Web traffic load balancing, doing away with the need to put in multiple layers of firewalls and load-balancing devices, according to the company.

Another firm, Top Layer Networks Inc., said its switches will support clustering and application load balancing this month. The devices not only will let users balance processing between servers but also mirror data on a constant basis, so that if one goes down, there is no lag for requests for new information.

“Messages are copied over the network for things like database application requests so that both servers have the same information,” says Mark Roy, a product marketing manager.

One result of the horse race to bundle new features into cache, load-balancing and Web switches is that some users are finding themselves installing gear from several different vendors.

“The reason we use different vendors’ products is because of the feature sets they offer at the time we are looking for them,” says Joe Minarik of


Inc., a broadband services provider in Redwood City, California, which uses hardware and software from vendors such as ArrowPoint, Cisco Systems Inc., Resonate Inc. and F5. “Whoever fills our needs at the time is what we go with.”