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Experts: Intelligent, application-aware networks may not be a wise choice

Cisco Systems Inc. is touting its Intelligent Information and Application-Oriented Networks, but some experts say keeping the network dumb could be the smarter choice.

Cisco Systems Inc.'s announcement late last year that application-aware networking will be its big push going forward is raising eyebrows, especially among experts who aren't buying into the networking goliath's theory of the Intelligent Information Network (IIN).

For the past three years, San Jose, Calif.-based Cisco has aggressively pushed its idea of adding more intelligence to the network. The Application-Oriented Network (AON) is the third phase of that plan, which Cisco announced in December at its analyst conference. AON, the company says, makes network devices such as routers and switches application-aware and adds a message-switching and processing overlay into the typical IP network.

AON follows in the footsteps of the first two phases of IIN: Integrated Systems and Integrated Services. Integrated Systems is the intelligent movement of data, voice and video across a common IP/MPLS network. That type of integration is facilitated by deploying Cisco's Integrated Services Router at a branch office. Integrated Services virtualizes network resources. Examples of integrated services are virtual storage area networks (VSANs), which provide a common view of storage, regardless of its physical volume configuration.

AON is a part of Cisco's IIN, which the vendor says is "a strategy that addresses the evolving role of the network within your business and directly addresses your desire to align IT resources with business priorities. The resulting network delivers active participation, process optimization, service delivery, and application responsiveness, which results in better IT awareness."

Under Cisco's vision, IIN "helps enable sophisticated IT functionality such as virtualization, telepresence, application integration and optimization that streamlines IT processes" to "build a more resilient, adaptive and intelligent network." That idea has been solidified with Cisco's announcement of AON and the Service-Oriented Network Architecture (SONA).

"The network is absorbing so many parts of other functions, it's really becoming a platform," said Jeanne Beliveau-Dunn, Cisco's senior director of product and technology marketing. "It's the only thing that touches everything that's attached to it."

But Burton Group research director David Passmore is cautious of Cisco's IIN marketing strategy and backs up that caution in the recent report "Cisco's Vision for Networking: Is More Networking Intelligence Smart?" The report warns that Cisco's IIN should not be mistaken for a major architectural shift. Instead, it should be seen as Cisco's attempt to use its dominance of enterprise networking equipment to move up the stack into the adjacent market for messaging and other applications processing.

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"[Cisco's] IIN is totally counter to the proven Internet end-to-end model that says the job of an Internet Protocol (IP) network should be just to route packets to the correct destination, with intelligence and processing in computers at the edge, external to the network itself," Passmore wrote. "The rationale for placing smarts only at the network edge is simple: It fosters new network services and application deployment. By attaching an additional server to the network edge, anyone can make available a new network application or service without network operator/owner coordination, thus empowering network users. The general-purpose nature of a dumb IP network means that the infrastructure can more easily accommodate … new applications."

Loki Jorgenson, chief scientist at Vancouver-based Apparent Networks, said the idea of an intelligent network is solid but questions whether it fills a void.

"[Words] like 'intelligent' are maligned and misunderstood," he said. "As far as I'm concerned, there's nothing intelligent going on in the network."

Jorgenson said he prefers to call an intelligent network an "expert system" that makes the network clever, not necessarily intelligent.

"The real benefit comes when you can couple the network behavior with the user experience," Jorgenson said. "[Some] want a network infrastructure that's aware of what it's carrying. But if the network doesn't support the end-user experience, it doesn't have a job; it doesn't have a purpose."

Essentially, intelligence through AON gives the network more power and insight. An intelligent network marries the network behaviors with the end-user experience by embedding within the network infrastructure the knowledge to inspect packets and determine how to treat them. In a dumb network, the packets are transported to their destinations with no questions asked. AON, along with IIN, also embeds security into the network so the network knows who is allowed to access which applications and services and when they can do so.

The multilayered approach of IIN and AON, proponents say, helps IT get the most out of the network, resulting in better user experiences.

"Networks are just networks," Jorgenson said. "Networks do well when they are simple. They pass packets. They don't know for whom or why, they just do it. The relationship between network behaviors and user experience is weak or lacking."

But through AON, those two aspects are coupled, so the network knows which applications should do what and when.

"I like to think of it as the middleware of middleware," Cisco's Beliveau-Dunn said, adding that AON can work as "a translator to applications."

But, Jorgenson said, adding in the smarts to make applications perform better can create performance degradation in other applications and services.

Passmore agrees.

"[An] application-aware network optimized for some applications and services must by definition be less well-suited for use by other types of applications," Passmore wrote in his report. "Although IIN may not hurt the basic packet-forwarding performance of the network, its optimizations embedded in switches and routers may ultimately get in the way of new applications or restrict the ability of network operators to modify the network infrastructure."

The network is absorbing so many parts of other functions, it's really becoming a platform. It's the only thing that touches everything that's attached to it.
Jeanne Beliveau-Dunn
Senior Director of Product and Technology MarketingCisco Systems Inc.
Beliveau-Dunn said, however, that performance degradation should not be a concern. All applications will theoretically continue to be served, but some real-time applications, such as VoIP, will be boosted to ensure low latency and on-demand performance.

"Certain applications require better QoS [Quality of Service], better prioritization for them to function correctly," she said.

According to Passmore, though, embedding application-related processing into switches and routers offers little advantage to enterprises, and AON functionality in the network can cause roadblocks with data center consolidation and end-to-end encryption.

"So Cisco's IIN/AON is potentially a double-edged sword for customers," Passmore said. "It promises increased functionality because Cisco's intelligent network nodes can better coordinate their activities or configurations with applications and network-attached devices, possibly making Cisco products more attractive to customers. But IIN/AON also increases the potential for Cisco vendor lock-in and reduces enterprise customer flexibility and choice, thereby decreasing the willingness to buy into IIN/AON. In the end, Cisco intelligent networking may not have much of a market impact."

Beliveau-Dunn noted, however, that, along with AON, Cisco's IIN vision -- designed to offer service resiliency, and streamline and better manage policy control -- will ultimately aid in overall service delivery, security and virtualization of resources.

"We're trying to be an application vendor," she said of Cisco. "We're trying to deliver on-demand services so you can use the network more seamlessly to automate everything you need to do."

According to Passmore, users who want to rapidly deploy new network devices or applications on the network may benefit more from a dumb network than an intelligent one.

"Maybe someday the self-managing, self-healing, self-defending network will become a reality …," his report stated. "But a network that is 'optimized' for one set of users or applications will, by prioritizing their performance, discriminate against others. In an intelligent network, there's always the risk that the optimization -- determined by enterprise 'corporate' or service provider network policies -- doesn't match the needs of specific business units or user groups, and removes the flexibility of enterprise users to create their own network applications."

Passmore and the Burton Group recommend that "enterprises should be leery of relying too much on applications and additional vendor-specific functionality embedded into the network nodes such as switches and routers. To the extent that Cisco's IIN and AON increasingly require this, enterprises should consider alternate strategies to retain product choice and flexibility. In general, the recommendation is to deploy separate appliances or stand-alone controllers rather than rely on similar functionality built into a Cisco switch or router."

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