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Web application performance: Complex apps make problems for WAN pros

As browser-based apps continue to grow in volume and complexity, WAN managers are re-evaluating their network engineering strategies to improve Web application performance.

With Web applications, users can be productive from anywhere with any Internet-enabled device, but the growing complexity and volume of these browser-based apps has required wide area network (WAN) managers to re-evaluate their network engineering strategies to improve Web application performance.

"Our biggest issue [around application performance] has been with the Web-based apps—only because we have so many of them and they're very interconnected," said Rick Drescher, managing director of technical services at Studley Inc., a real estate services firm in New York City. Studley has made Microsoft SharePoint a Web-based "launch pad" for many of the business applications used by the company's 600 employees.

 "Web-based applications are incredibly intolerant to packet loss, so if you're sending data across the wire to [display it] on somebody's screen and [the carrier] is dropping every third packet, even with TCP ... it's going to be impossible for the end user to use that application," Drescher said. "The application will just start timing out."

Web application performance tanked when the IT organization at SFN Group Inc. moved a number of enterprise resource planning (ERP) applications behind a single Web portal, according to Forrest Schroth, lead data network engineer for the Fort Lauderdale, Fla. -based staffing services firm.

"The Web [application] performance was so slow that the new product was almost unusable," Schroth said.

Optimization vendors take aim at Web application performance

Some recent announcements from WAN and Web optimization vendors suggest that they have identified these Web application performance challenges as a market opportunity.

Riverbed Technology has long supported HTTP optimization for Web-based applications—most of all Microsoft's—but it recently made two acquisitions aimed at improving and expanding its Web application acceleration techniques. Riverbed bought Zeus Technology, a virtual application delivery controller (ADC) vendor, and Aptimize Limited, a small startup specializing in Web content optimization.

The two acquisitions are Riverbed's way of addressing not just the growth and complexity of Web applications, but also with the way users are accessing them—that is, outside of the branch office. Riverbed has traditionally advocated for its WAN optimization appliance, Steelhead, to be deployed symmetrically—meaning an appliance on each end of the connection.

Riverbed "became increasingly convinced that [it] needed to get beyond the traditional symmetric optimization model" and improve its support for asymmetric optimization for remote users, partners or customers accessing Web-based applications, said Paul O'Farrell, vice president of corporate development strategy at Riverbed.

Zeus' software-based approach makes it easier for WAN managers to deploy it in a cloud environment, he said. Aptimize's technology improves Web application performance by accelerating how the various components on the page are rendered. It consolidates multiple requests for content, such as images or pieces of JavaScript code, into a single transaction, O'Farrell said.  

"[Steelheads] will do pre-fetching of HTTP [content], but they don't get actually into the HTML itself. What Aptimize does is it'll look at the HTML code itself and transform it on the fly," O'Farrell said. "That sounds conceptually like an easy thing to do, but particularly with JavaScript, it's very easy to break a webpage." 

Meanwhile, content delivery network (CDN) and Web optimization provider Akamai Technologies recently partnered with BMC Software to provide more granular monitoring analytics data to Akamai customers. The new Edgeview software—free for who Akamai customers who use its Web optimization services—crunches performance data to compare how quickly or slowly specific pages load, whether they're on or off Akamai's network. An additional service, which is not free, provides similar analysis of specific user sessions of components on a page.

"An employee is probably less likely [than a customer] to abandon [a website] and never come back," said Andy Rubinson, senior manager of product marketing at Akamai. "But you definitely can be losing adoption [of a Web application] because people won't want to [use] the tools ... if they're not performing well."

Earlier this year Akamai also partnered with Strangeloop, a Web content optimization startup whose technology is similar to Aptimize, to deliver a combined CDN and optimization service. Akamai also announced a strategic alliance in May with Riverbed, which both companies say will lead to an integration of each vendor's software into the other's infrastructure.

Many approaches to improving Web application performance

Amid the ERP consolidation problems at SFN Group, Schroth initially evaluated WAN optimization as a potential solution to his Web application performance woes, but he didn’t think such an approach would scale for a company of SFN's size, with more than 100,000 users.

We're just on the point of deploying a custom-developed Web application that ... is a pretty complex application, and it wouldn't be possible if we didn't have [WAN optimization].

John Lax
Vice President of Information Systems, International Justice Mission

"Our challenge was that we had 800 offices that needed to connect back to a couple data centers, and most of the solutions being offered at that time required something to be at every site ... and that gets to be very costly," Schroth said. "If you have 10 or 15 big sites, those solutions work very well."

Instead, he upgraded his WAN from frame relay to more efficient Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS) services and built his Quality of Service (QoS) and Class of Service (CoS) strategy around the Web application. Its traffic receives the second-highest priority, after voice, Schroth said.

Schroth is already planning to redesign his WAN again for cloud-based apps because his server administrator colleagues are evaluating Software as a Service (SaaS). Today he backhauls Internet traffic from branches to his data centers for security purposes, but this design introduces latency that will be intolerable for users of SaaS-based apps. He is weighing the possibility of giving those branches direct Internet access.  

"If we can lock down the remote site to look like a home user ... then we're in a position to loosen up Internet [access] at those remote sites," Schroth said.

For Studley branch users with high bandwidth demands, Drescher has begun using low-cost, business-class Internet access to improve Web application performance by freeing up his private WAN pipe. He also deployed Steelheads to get the most out of his private connections.

Drescher has configured Cisco Systems' second-generation Integrated Service Routers (ISR G2s) to offload standard Web browsing traffic onto the cheap broadband pipe. He will begin a proof of concept later this year for supporting and ensuring performance of Web applications through a virtual private network (VPN) tunnel on those connections.

"I don't really see the private network going away ... but it's going to start to be maybe less of a dependency," Drescher said.

Human rights organization International Justice Mission (IJM), which breaks up slavery and sex trafficking rings in developing countries, operates 15 remote offices in infrastructure-poor parts of the world where affordable high-quality bandwidth is something of an oxymoron, according to John Lax, vice president of information systems at the Washington, D.C. -based organization.

The 256 Kbps connection in IJM's Ugandan office typically delivers just 64 Kbps and costs $1,200 per month, which doesn't bode well for key Web applications such as SharePoint, Lax said. Deploying Steelhead WAN optimization appliances yielded a four- to five-fold performance improvement on average, enabling IJM to launch a global Web-based help desk application for the first time, he said. 

"We're just on the point of deploying a custom-developed Web application that will allow us to do all of our case tracking and management [via one user interface]," Lax said. "It's a pretty complex application, and it wouldn't be possible if we didn't have the [Steelheads] in place."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, News Writer.

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