Internet traffic management specialist F5 Networks next week is planning to announce hardware and software upgrades that promise to help customers manage, direct and speed application traffic.SEATTLE - Internet traffic management specialist\u00a0F5 Networks\u00a0next week is planning to announce hardware and software upgrades that promise to help customers manage, direct and speed application traffic.F5 says its new software, Big-IP Version 4.5, which runs on the company's family of Big-IP appliances, can read any IP packet header or payload with an eye toward directing application traffic based on customer- defined rules. With the new software, companies could apply the same benefits achieved with Internet traffic management - such as high availability, security and scalability - to Web-based applications without having to code rules into software or deploy expensive hardware, says Erik Giesa, director of product management at F5.F5 previously added application-aware capabilities to its Big-IP products. Last year, for example, it announced support for voice applications based on Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) and announced integration with BEA Systems' WebLogic server. This release broadens the product's capabilities by letting it manage any application protocol such as XML and SQL.The foundation of the new software is F5's Universal Inspection Engine, which reads application data, and iRules, customer-defined criteria that tell Big-IP how and where to move traffic. A customer could direct Big-IP to move traffic according to mobile phone numbers found in the payload of a packet, for example.F5 also is planning to announce its first custom silicon, the Packet Velocity ASIC, which will power a new line of Big-IP application switches: Big-IP 1000, Big-IP 2400 and Big-IP 5100. The Packet Velocity ASIC is designed to handle up to 250,000 Layer 4 connections per second and up to 20,000 Layer 7 sessions per second. The previous Big-IP appliances could handle about 32,000 Layer 4 connections per second and about 17,000 Layer 7 sessions per second. The appliances typically sit behind a firewall and in front of application servers, databases or Web servers.F5 is not alone in targeting application management as businesses put more advanced IP applications onto their networks. Competitors such as Cisco, Nortel, Radware and Foundry also are looking at providing more intelligent switches.Peter Firstbrook, a senior research analyst at Meta Group, says F5 can now dig deeper into packets than its competition."Most of the companies claiming Layer 7 capability really just have the ability to dig so many characters, usually into the header, but they can't get much beyond that," he says. "What F5 has done is they can dig into any part of the application payload and find any specific tags that you want to look at."Voice-over-IP provider Net2Phone has been lab testing the new Big-IP software and plans to deploy the technology to manage SIP traffic within VoIP applications. "We use horizontal scaling, and deploying a traffic management tool that is aware of the flow of sessions is the ideal way to make that approach to scaling reliable," says Jeff Skelton, CTO of Net2Phone.Skelton says he plans to use Big-IP to handle XML traffic for back-office applications, eliminating the need to deploy a separate XML router. Skelton says Big-IP is providing savings in operational expenses, but wouldn't say how much.The hardware platforms are scheduled for general availability next month and range in price from $15,000 for the Big-IP 1000 to $58,000 for a fully redundant pair of the Big-IP 5100s. The Big-IP software is scheduled to be available later this month, and existing Big-IP customers with services contracts will be upgraded for free. The software will be available for all Big-IP appliances.