Cisco gets serious about application delivery

* A look at Cisco's Wide Area Application Services

Last week in Dallas, Jim moderated the network and application acceleration track of Network World's IT Roadmap seminar (the next IT Roadmap takes place in San Francisco on Nov. 30). During his presentation, Jim asked how many in the audience were responsible for the ongoing management of their company's network and applications. Virtually every attendee raised their hand.

Even allowing for the fact that the attendees at Jim's session are a self-selected group, their response is further evidence that over the last few years the majority of networking organizations have assumed responsibility for managing application performance.

This begs the question: What are networking companies doing to respond to this new set of responsibilities that their traditional customer base has assumed?

In Cisco's case, it has acquired such WAN companies as FineGround Networks and Actona. The companies were interesting to Cisco because FineGround produced technology that accelerated applications over a WAN and Actona helped manage storage from remote offices.

We didn't hear much about the technologies after the acquisitions, but that all changed earlier this month when Cisco announced its Wide Area Application Services (WAAS) for branch office networking.

According to Cisco, WAAS provides WAN optimization, application acceleration, and Wide-Area File Services (WAFS). It is worth pointing out that Cisco, like most vendors, uses the phrase "application acceleration" to refer to accelerating protocols that run at the application layer (Layer 7). While that is not an incorrect use of the phrase, it is a bit confusing now that we are seeing vendors that actually focus on accelerating specific applications, such as Microsoft's SharePoint, by focusing on the semantics of the application and not just on Layer 7 protocols.

Cisco is emphasizing the seamless nature of WAAS. It is hard to argue that being seamless is a bad thing; research that we conducted about a year ago indicated that one of the reasons why IT organizations were reluctant to deploy network and application optimization appliances was concern that such technology would break the network or make it more difficult to troubleshoot it. However, when Cisco says that WAAS is transparent, it means that WAAS does not support tunneling and hence does not change the packet headers. While Cisco can create an argument for why tunneling is a bad thing, we prefer the situation where tunneling is an option and IT organizations can decide for themselves if they want to implement it.

It is impossible to look at PowerPoint slides or a press release and get any meaningful insight into how well a suite of products will work. However, Cisco's recent announcement does demonstrate that the company is serious about application delivery. As will be discussed in the next WAN newsletter, the announcement also points out the escalating battle between Cisco and Microsoft.

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