What the network knows

Dale Maw struggled to answer an out-of-the blue question from Network World Canada when a reporter caught up with him at a recent industry event. The regional director of IT at the Niagara Health System, headquartered in St. Catharines, Ont., was put on the spot to come up with a definition: what is an “application-aware network?”

It was an odd question, but Maw recovered quickly, explaining that in his opinion — with no help from research and nary a warning that such a query would pop up — an application-aware network has certain “self-healing” capabilities, employs smart routing techniques to work around equipment failures so data makes its way to its destination.

Asked if he’d ever heard the term before, Maw was honest. “No. That’s a new one to me.”

Others at the event were equally honest, and equally unaware of the phrase. Still, they all played along, coming up with their own definitions of the application-aware network.

Tim Peterson, an Edmonton-based senior consultant at Compugen Services Ltd., an IT consultancy, said, “I would assume it’s a network that can monitor all of an organization’s applications, patch them accordingly (and) provide them to users accordingly.”

Hubert Kelly, president of NexInnovations Inc., a systems integration firm from Mississauga, Ont., said, “I think it would mean the network responds to the demands placed on it by the application.”

Robert Huizinga, director of clinical research at Isotechnika Inc., an Edmonton-based biopharmaceutical firm, said, “If I were to guess, I’d say it’s probably a network that helps people become more aware of how to use applications.”

Next step

Had they the chance to research it (none had), these folks might have known that application-aware networking has been around for some time, the term bandied about by network equipment vendors, academic researchers and industry analysts to describe the next step in data transmission technology.

Still, most of the people asked hadn’t heard of the application-aware network, suggesting it’s a topic that deserves some scrutiny.

These ambushed interviewees are to be forgiven their unfamiliarity. After all, even people who use the term can’t seem to agree on what it means.

Ellacoya Networks Inc., a company that builds carrier-class network equipment, says its devices bring application awareness to broadband service providers, and lets network operators prioritize data, a prerequisite for high-quality voice-over-IP (VoIP) service.

Yipes Communications Inc., a San Francisco service provider, boasted in 2001 (today the firm is known as Yipes Enterprise Services Inc.) that it was the first carrier to build an application-aware network, which would give users bandwidth-management capabilities.

Enterays Networks Inc. uses “application-aware” to describe its NetSight Atlas network management apps. Proficient Networks Inc. uses the phrase in promo material for the “Network Policy Engine” portfolio. Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh applied the term to its Darwin project, a network resource management framework.

Lately AT&T Corp. is using “application-aware” for new network services. In fact, the Bedminster, N.J.-based service provider baked the phrase right into its upcoming platform. According to Steve Fisher of AT&T Labs, the Application Aware Network (AAN) is operating in prototype mode now; AT&T will bust it out for public use by the end of the year.

AT&T’s AAN represents a sort of IT buzzword-convergence. It incorporates concepts like “resource management” and “load balancing,” “virtualization” and of course “Web services.” It automatically allocates bandwidth to data according to the application’s requirements, and negotiates server space for apps across global hosting centres.

According to David Belanger, chief scientist of AT&T Labs, the AAN can actually change aspects of information as it traverses the network, so data arrives at the right place, in due course and in the right format for the device receiving it.

“The actual manipulation of your data, rather than the simple routing of your data, takes place within the context of the network,” Belanger said.

Puting it in context

“Context” is an important part of next-gen networking, said Mark Fabbi, a Toronto-based industry analyst at Gartner Inc. He posits that the buzz surrounding this term, application awareness, is somewhat misleading.

“‘Application aware’ is like me telling you that I understand French,” Fabbi said. “You start speaking French to me. I put my hands up and say, ‘Sorry. I didn’t quite say that correctly. I’m aware you’re speaking French. But I don’t understand anything you’re saying. I can’t interact with you. But by golly, you’re speaking French.'”

Fabbi advocates a different phrase to describe the network’s application aptitude: “application fluency,” which he said requires a deeper understanding of software than most networks have today.

The application-fluent network understands “not just the packets flowing across the network, but [ellipse] the sessions or the transactions,” he said. “You can start doing something at a much more detailed level.”

For instance, Fabbi said, these days network managers must create different security schemes for remote user-access depending on how the user enters the network. If she’s using a public Internet kiosk, she might need a Web-based secure channel, an SSL virtual private network (VPN). If the user is working from home, she might employ a separate, secure access client, an IPSec-based VPN.

“You deal with [security] in very different ways depending on where we’re connecting from,” Fabbi said. “In the future, why doesn’t the network realize how we’re connecting, whether we’re secure or unsecure, and if we’re connecting from an unsecured location, automatically encrypt? [ellipse] Let the network deal with that.”

Three steps

One network equipment maker means to deal with application awareness in a three-step process. Cisco Systems Inc. was touting its “intelligent” routing features a few years ago and, according to Cisco Systems Canada Co.’s spokesperson Brantz Myers, those prioritization and quality-of-service (QoS) measures were merely the first part of the firm’s application-aware mandate.

In the second step, Cisco plans to add dynamic resource utilization to its portfolio, Myers said, explaining that this would spread application loads across multiple servers, so the enterprise customer doesn’t have to operate dedicated server and storage assets per application.

In step three, Cisco means to help applications source resources across the network infrastructure as companies create apps on the fly, drawing on the object-oriented school of application development.

Cisco’s future routers may well bring a level of application awareness to the network; but do they offer application fluency? Fabbi isn’t convinced. He said Cisco’s current offerings do little to help applications complete their tasks; networks simply support data transfer, rather than urge the process. There’s little reason to believe, he said, that Cisco will add application fluency to its equipment in the near term.

But he also said Cisco would eventually embark the application-fluency bandwagon. “I think at some point they’ll be forced to. If they don’t pick up on this, their equipment gets commoditized.”

Myers said Fabbi’s notion of the application-fluent network doesn’t sound all that different from Cisco’s view of the future. The firm’s intelligent-router route is just beginning.

“This is a three-to-five year strategy, and we don’t know what years four and five are going to bring yet,” Myers said.

If Cisco faces a challenge with its iteration of application awareness, it might be client caution: customers are wary of new technologies. They want to see proven, positive results before signing a cheque.

“We still have customers, as recently as this week, trying to figure out if there’s any point staying in the token ring world, whether or not they should move to IP,” Myers said, describing how some businesses are more cautious than others.

We’re only human

Fabbi said one of the biggest obstacles before application fluency might be human nature, our inclination to categorize, divide and distinguish one thing from another. For instance, many companies have distinct IT groups, each in charge of, say, servers, networking equipment, and applications.

In the application-fluent environment, things aren’t so separate. Application-fluent network elements “aren’t devices that you can just drop into the network,” Fabbi said. “They need configuration, and cooperation between the networking group and the application group. [ellipse] To my mind, that’s the biggest challenge. These groups don’t talk to each other.”

Still, Fabbi said his clients are starting to get used to the idea of application fluency. And Myers pointed out that although customers can be skeptical, in time they might see the appeal of employing things like dynamic resource utilization and other aspects of so-called intelligence in the network.

Then again, given how few of the people that Network World Canada talked to were aware about application-aware networking, perhaps it’s too soon to discuss its benefits. Maybe education should remain at the top of the list for the time being.

“Well,” said Huizinga from Isotechnika, standing beside Compugen’s Peterson, “here’s two people who don’t know what it is. It think it’s something worth talking about.”

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