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Web content optimization rewrites HTML to improve application delivery

Shamus McGillicuddy

Optimizing Web-based applications has generally been a packet and protocol layer game in which data center engineers use application delivery controllers for compression, caching, SSL offload and load balancing. But

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a new class of vendors is reaching even higher up the stack to optimize HTML code itself for better performance.

Self-styled as Web content optimization specialists, these startups have developed algorithms that automatically rewrite HTML so that Web pages load more efficiently on a user's browser.

Startups in this space include Strangeloop, Aptimize and AcceloWeb, but larger companies are  interested too. Google has launched its own Web content optimization service, Page Speed Service. WAN optimization vendor Riverbed Technology bought Aptimize last month, and content delivery network (CDN) provider Limelight Networks bought AcceloWeb last spring. Strangeloop has developed a partnership with CDN provider Akamai.

HTML coders are not network engineers

HTML programmers and Web designers don't think like network engineers. They try to build webpages that are navigable, functional and present well in a browser, but they don’t always think about network efficiency. A webpage with 20 images might require a user to make 20 round trips to download each image—a real drain on resources.

"Many Web-based applications perform badly because the tools we use to program browser-based apps use unbelievably bad programming practices," said Joe Skorupa, research vice president at Gartner.

"People don’t understand that the way you construct the HTML on the page has a huge impact on the responsiveness of the application. Whether you use one style sheet or five style sheets. Whether you load out of a browser cache or always pull off a server. When you download JavaScript into a browser, the browser stops until it executes all the JavaScript. It doesn’t download anymore."

Web content optimization vendors intercept the commands coming from a browser and reorder and restructure them to deliver an optimally coded webpage, Skorupa said.

Network administrator Mark Currence started using Strangeloop's cloud-based Web content optimization service last year at PrintingForLess.com (PFL), a Web-based commercial printing shop headquartered in Livingston, Mont. The service has automated the company's efforts at optimizing its website.

Previously at PFL, Web content optimization "was definitely a one-off type thing where we would notice that there was slowness in a certain section of the site,” said Currence.  “We would go in with our developers and optimize for that specific situation. Strangeloop has enabled us to do that optimization across the board. And when we have code changes, they can just refresh their systems and it's optimized. It doesn't mean that we stop doing optimization work here, but we know they are going to help us out before we even know that we have a problem."

Strangeloop's Web content optimization is Currence's primary means of optimizing application delivery today. He also uses Microsoft load balancers. With further growth at his company, he'd like to graduate to full-fledged ADCs.

"SSL acceleration or geographic load balancing? I would definitely like to do that. When that gets implemented, it will require significant re-architecting of some of our components. So that's in the future. Strangeloop is an easy first step. As an IT guy this is an easy way to get traction with the business side of our company because we can see the benefit right away. We see the return on their dollars invested, so it makes them more inclined to invest money on further optimization."

Cousins to the application delivery controller, soon to be wed?

Web content optimization is not yet on everyone's radar, but the technology's profile got a boost late last year when Gartner added two of its leading startups, Strangeloop and Aptimize, as visionaries on its ballyhooed Magic Quadrant for application delivery controllers (ADCs). Although Web content optimization vendors are not producing ADCs, Gartner said their products are often deployed alongside each other.

In fact, Web content optimization could eventually become just another function on a multifunctional ADC. WAN optimization vendor Riverbed Technology, which recently bought Aptimize, also acquired software-based ADC vendor Zeus Technology. Riverbed intends to integrate the products of these two acquisitions.

"We see the Aptimize product fitting nicely with the Zeus ADC," said Paul O'Farrell, vice president of corporate development and strategy at Riverbed. "Aptimize right now is sold as a Web server plug-in. In the future it will evolve and integrate with the Zeus product."

Joshua Bixby, president and founder of Strangeloop, said he would much rather run his product as a service on someone else's hardware platform than sell his own appliance.

"Today I sell a Dell OEM'ed server, but I would much rather be partnered on a Juniper or F5 box or on a content delivery network like I am today with Akamai," he said. "We're not a hardware company. At the end of the day, my customer would rather have a [hardware] relationship with Juniper or F5 or whoever."

 

Let us know what you think about the story; email Shamus McGillicuddy, News Director.


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