Network edge courts apps

Driven by the opportunity to secure the role of edge networking devices in enterprise IT infrastructures, a groundswell of networking vendors is beginning to embrace Web services.

Companies including 3Com Corp. and Cisco Systems Inc. are in the process of developing edge routing devices to embrace technologies such as deep-packet inspection in an effort to meet the emerging demands of Web-based applications.

Santa Clara, Calif.-based 3Com, which in May announced its XRN 10 Gigabit Ethernet VoIP (voice over IP) switch, is in the midst of contemplating the impact of enterprise applications on the next generation of networking equipment.

Although the company’s 10/100 Ethernet-based equipment is already “application aware,” Patrick Guay, vice president and general manager of 3Com’s LAN infrastructure division, said the company is working to unify the code base across its product lines to ease configuration and management issues.

“Applications need to be able to signal their requests from the edge of the network,” Guay said.

With 3Com currently in the process of rolling out its SuperStack 3 Switch 4400 SE, Guay said the company is hearing “noise from customers” about the need for application-aware switches.

3Com’s first step on this path was to introduce field upgrade, application prioritization, and VoIP management features in the 4400.

“We are productizing a switch to recognize different communities of applications at the edge of the network, but we are not there yet,” Guay said.

In addition, Guay said he thinks “more can be done” to develop edge switches capable of rerouting traffic based on application latency and service-level requirements.

San Jose, Calif.-based Cisco, for its part, has conceded the importance of Web services to the development of multitenant application architectures.

Cisco Chairman and CEO John Chambers used his keynote at NetWorld+Interop 2002 Las Vegas recently to highlight the need to develop a common architecture around security and applications to build out what he calls the “network virtual organization.”

Chambers and other senior executives later made one of their initial public statements of support for Web services. “[Web services] will change the way you do computing,” Chambers said.

Although Cisco officials assert that Web services will not fundamentally change the nature of packet flow through the network, network devices need to adopt filtering and prioritization capabilities based on XML tags, said Bob Gleichauf, director of software development for security solutions.

Cisco’s vision includes XML load balancing in the LAN, and ultimately building out technologies to support “global routing of Web services,” Gleichauf said.

Gleichauf also indicated that Cisco is working on building higher degrees of state into its switches to improve speed, but not divulge timeline details.

Other companies pushing a similar agenda include Sarvega Inc., DataPower Technology Inc., and Forum Systems Inc., all of which announced XML-aware switches this year.

Company officials believe these technologies will follow in the footsteps of SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) accelerators, server load balancers, and content caching systems, serving as imperative edge devices.

Judy Estrin, CEO of startup Packet Design in Mountain View, Calif., commented that while she served as CTO of Cisco Systems, she and her team discussed edge-aware networking more than two years ago.

“We’ve talked for years about routers and their ability to differentiate packets and decide levels of quality of service,” Estrin said. “It’s still an interesting area, but we [the networking industry] try to make things too complex.”

Estrin explained that routers are designed to route data and do it well, but vendors can build routers that can mark packets based on classification.

However, she said enterprises are still uncertain about the quality of service of such routers and how to deploy them.

Andrew Missing, director of data products marketing at Paris-based Alcatel SA’s broadband networking division, said packet-aware routing is important at the edge but not important at the core today.

He explained that core networking devices must understand DiffServ (Differentiated Services) — an IETF working group project architecture for providing different types or levels of service for network traffic — but they do not yet need to be packet aware.

“The evolution toward IP edge services is occurring,” Missing said. “Alcatel and others are now focusing on layer 7 [the application level] awareness.”

Mark Seery, a networking analyst at RHK Inc., based in South San Francisco, Calif., said XML-aware routing is gaining momentum after being a topic of industry discussion for three years.

Cisco and others see deep packet inspection happening in the network processor. “Deep packet inspection will happen in the ASICs,” Gleichauf said. “The ASICs need to be modified.”

Solidium, an Ottawa-based semiconductor company, is working to build on this idea with technology company officials call content inspection and classification processors.

Solidium has built programmable classification processors that it claims can offload the classification function from network processors in network edge equipment such as multiservice switches and IP Services gateways, DiffServ Routers, WAN edge devices, and protocol analyzers.

Meanwhile, Intel Corp. is believed to be working on XML inspection technologies for its networking devices but company officials would not reveal further details

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