Intelligent Networks Direct Information Traffic

Equipment is designed to move traffic along the most efficient and best route

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

November 2, 2001

6 Min Read

The days of unintelligent switches and routers may be numbered, as customers replace relatively unsophisticated equipment in their networks with devices capable of applying more intelligence to network traffic. Along with more intelligence, the latest equipment also provides the higher speeds needed to accommodate greater network loads created by new multimedia applications such as streaming audio and video.

The goal is to route traffic associated with different applications to the most appropriate destination and to preserve the unique qualities of a specific type of traffic. For example, voice traffic receives the priority it needs to maintain conversations, and Web queries are routed to a server that houses the necessary content to answer those queries.

Experience Music Project, an interactive museum that showcases music in its many forms at its Seattle facility and on its Web site, needed a multimedia LAN and Internet network so it could display content and educate visitors by inviting them to interact with the exhibits. The museum has more than 6 terabytes of data in its archives, which it stores and makes available on its network to museum visitors, researchers, and Web-site visitors.

The collection represents 9,700 CDs of audio, video, still images, and text, and the museum is continually adding material to its archives, says Brian Beaumont, director at Experience Music Project. All of the museum's data resides on more than 200 servers, connected via more than 90,000 miles of fiber-optic and copper cabling in a packet-over-Sonet and Gigabit Ethernet LAN.

The museum's main requirement is reliability, because its mission is to provide a complete multimedia experience to all visitors, whether in person or on the Web. "We've been mandated to give our visitors an unparalleled experience they can't get anywhere else," Beaumont says. Without network equipment that provides ample capacity and reliability, the museum wouldn't be able to support streaming video, for instance.

Because the museum operates with a great deal of creativity, it needs a network that can accommodate constantly changing exhibits. "We're interested in being flexible and being able to turn on a dime," Beaumont says.

For those reasons, Experience Music Project chose Black Diamond LAN switches from Extreme Networks Inc., which has the video-streaming capabilities the museum needs, and Cisco 7206 switch routers with Ethernet channels and packet-over-Sonet capabilities for the speedy infrastructure the museum's content requires.

Part of the movement to more intelligent devices involves the addition of content awareness to routers and switches. The market for content-networking equipment, as it's known, was $1 billion last year and will surpass $1.7 billion this year, reaching $9.5 billion by 2005, according to International Data Corp.

The market-research firm says content networking includes caching, Secure Sockets Layer acceleration, and Layer 4/7 switching, all of which require some level of content awareness and content-based processing. Layer 4/7 switching involves switching traffic at the upper, or more complex, levels of the Open Systems Interconnection model of computer-data networking.

Higher-intelligence switches will start replacing core enterprise routers, especially as the content on business networks becomes more diverse and assumes higher importance to businesses, IDC says.

Within the content-networking category, Crossbeam Systems Inc. is combining multiple network-processing tasks in a single piece of equipment rather than requiring customers to devote multiple servers to the tasks. The company's X40 network-applications processor combines network-processing modules, applications-processing modules, and a control module in a single chassis. Throop Wilder, VP of marketing at Crossbeam, says one X40 device can take the place of multiple firewall appliances and load balancers in a company's network, greatly simplifying the network infrastructure.

"One of the things we've heard from customers is that they're tired of dealing with a plethora of different equipment platforms," Wilder says.

All the major networking hardware vendors are building more intelligence into their products at the same time they're adding more robust processors to handle higher-speeds and support for increasingly sophisticated applications that combine voice, data, and video.

In intelligent switching, the goal is "to do the switching based on the context of the message," says Don Petersen, chairman and CEO of Avaya Inc. Demand for intelligent switching led to Avaya's recent purchase of Cyber IQ, Petersen says. Avaya will incorporate Cyber IQ's content-aware switching technologies into its Cajun line of Gigabit Ethernet switches within a matter of months, he says.

Other areas on which Avaya is concentrating include Gigabit Ethernet switching and 10 Gigabit Ethernet switching, Petersen says. In September, the vendor launched 10 Gigabit Ethernet cards that customers can add to Avaya's 580 and 880 switches. Avaya also is continuing to enhance its line of Definity IP PBX systems to support larger-scale installations, he says.

Nortel Networks Corp. in October created its Intelligent Internet business unit focused strictly on adding intelligence to its Passport line of switches. So far, the unit has integrated content-aware switching capabilities from Nortel's acquisition of Alteon WebSystems to build capabilities such as load balancing and SSL acceleration into the Passport product line.

The addition of higher levels of intelligence to network switches helps businesses handle increasingly complex applications, but it carries dividends for carriers as well. Especially as voice and data begin to converge on a common, packet-based network infrastructure, the addition of application-based intelligence to equipment that resides within carrier networks serves as the foundation for new value-added services such as network-based voice messaging or virtual private networks.

The more-intelligent equipment can also reduce carriers' costs because it carries traffic more efficiently, says Kris Alexander, a product strategist at Genuity Inc., operator of one of the biggest Internet backbone networks. Genuity is working with Nortel and Cisco Systems to add voice-over-IP and content-based switching to Genuity's network, Alexander says. With the new switches, Genuity plans to offer enhanced security, additional service-level guarantees, and network-based voice-processing services, among other services, Alexander says.

Another vendor, Alcatel, is focused on providing converged voice and data products to the business marketplace, says Ray Hanson, VP of strategy at Alcatel's E-business networking division. Availability, security, intelligence, and manageability are four requirements that the company says are essential for products that combine voice and data traffic on a single network, Hanson says.

Alcatel's main voice-over-IP product is its Omni PCX 4400 client-server IP voice system, which the company is renaming the Omni PCX Enterprise. As with any IP telephony system, the Omni PCX has to have the intelligence needed to prioritize voice traffic, Hanson says. By early next year, Alcatel plans to introduce 1Touch, a quality-of-service feature for its products that will let network managers quickly assign the correct priorities to different types of network traffic based on the characteristics of different applications.

That capability, like others that add intelligent switching and greater content awareness to networking equipment, gives customers more immediate control over how their traffic is routed on a network based on its traffic type or application.

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