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Cisco claims role of application interpreter

Cisco released more detail Tuesday about its application-oriented networking initiative, which could shift the burden of application integration from middleware to the network.

LAS VEGAS -- Customers and experts Tuesday lauded Cisco Systems Inc.'s effort to optimize and manage enterprise application data, though the new technology's long-term impact ultimately remains unclear.

Earlier in the day at Cisco's Networkers 2005 customer and partner conference, the San Jose, Calif.-based networking company revealed the first pieces of its long-rumored application-oriented networking (AON) strategy, namely a set of blade appliances that enhance the network's ability to recognize and manage application data packets.

Charles Giancarlo, Cisco's chief technology officer, said AON products will allow the network to "speak the language of applications" without middleware, effectively serving as interpreter for applications using different protocols -- such as SAP AG's NetWeaver and IBM's WebSphere -- and ensuring that application data adheres to business rules.

AON's key objectives, Giancarlo said, are to make data exchange more efficient among multiple applications, ease application lifecycle management and reduce overall IT complexity.

Preventing a breakdown

To illustrate what AON can do, Giancarlo explained how Cisco is using the technology internally. He said the $25 billion networking giant regularly uses numerous applications to conduct business over the Internet with customers, partners and suppliers.

Giancarlo said interactions with one such business partner, AT&T, involve seven different applications. Changes to any of those applications involve adjustments to its own systems and manually coordinating with AT&T to ensure it makes the proper adjustments, otherwise the electronic lines of communications break down.

Plus, prior to AON, Cisco had no way to gauge how much data was moving back and forth between its and AT&T's systems or what types of information was being transmitted without performing an analysis on each application individually.

However, with AON, if an application change is made, it lessens the impact by altering application data while it traverses the network so that it is received in whatever form is necessary for it to be processed correctly. Additionally, the technology can quantify application traffic based on attributes, such as its destination.

Utilizing policies

Stephen Cho, senior director of product management for Cisco's AON business unit, said the process begins when the blades use Cisco's Web Cache Communications Protocol (WCCP) to transparently redirect application traffic as it flows through the network.

Once an application data packet reaches the AON blade, a deep inspection takes place to break down a packet's payload into the original application message.

From there, policy takes over. Cho said using the accompanying AON Development Studio software, a customer can create any number of policies that tell the devices how to treat virtually any data type from any application; for instance, it can be logged, routed, translated, transformed or cached.

With the AON Management Console, those policies are distributed to the individual blades. The system allows for policies to be applied across all blades, or just to certain devices or groups of devices.

Pricing has not yet been revealed for the first limited-release models, which are compatible with Catalyst 6500 Series switches, as well as 2600, 2800, 3700 and 3800 Series routers. AON devices in other form factors and non-chassis formats will be available later this year.

Along with the blade release, Cisco is launching a set of related professional services offerings to provide customers with training and specialized support, some of which are offered in conjunction with partners including IBM, SAP AG, EDS, SAIC and others.

Synergies of convergence

Zeus Kerravala, vice president of infrastructure research and consulting for Boston-based Yankee Group, called the AON initiative a good move for Cisco because short of redeveloping applications, the only way to improve enterprise application performance is to improve the network's ability to handle application data.

Kerravala said it's likely that Cisco will be compelled to put its AON technology in front of application specialists in addition to network managers, but the synergies between the two technology areas are growing.

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Jay Holms, a network manager with Sigma Micro Corp. in Indianapolis, said AON could prove to be an important network management technology, but the message may be lost on admins, many of whom don't focus on applications.

Yet he said the concept "absolutely" makes sense because the convergence of IT systems is increasing the importance of the network.

"You need to know what's in the network from an application usage perspective," Holms said, whether it's IP voice packets or other types of mission critical data, as opposed to unauthorized peer-to-peer data or streaming media downloads.

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