Businesses increasingly are looking to application acceleration technologies, a cheaper, more efficient alternative to throwing more bandwidth and servers at the problem. The market for application acceleration jumped more than 30% last year to $1.2 billion, and it's expected to grow even faster this year, according to Gartner.
The potential isn't lost on Cisco Systems, which is trying to elbow its way back to the No. 1 spot in the application acceleration market after losing it to F5 Networks last year. Cisco last week introduced Application Control Engine, a blade for Catalyst 6500 switches that provides load balancing and protocol maintenance and security at throughputs of up to 16 Gbps. Cisco started down this path last fall with its Application Networking Services for optimizing networks and delivering applications faster, and it envisions a $1 billion-a-year business within five years. Last October, it released the Application Velocity System, designed to offload server processes and optimize communication paths.
Cisco's middle-of-the-road Application Control Engine is priced at $59,995. That's not cheap, but it's less expensive than one alternative: adding bandwidth and then buying the servers and software licenses, along with the staff, to manage it.
The Application Control Engine can break network traffic into up to 250 virtual partitions. Companies can shield what happens in one partition from what happens in another, dedicating bandwidth based on needs. The goal is to provision networks on the fly based on how apps are performing, says George Kurian, Cisco's VP of application delivery.
While Cisco's new product focuses on load balancing and deep packet inspection, there are other approaches to application acceleration. F5 offers products like Cisco's and also WAN optimization boxes that focus on protocol efficiency. Akamai Technologies shortens data's travel time by routing customer traffic over a distributed network, and Netli reroutes customer TCP/IP traffic to its own data center, where it overlays it with a more efficient transmission protocol.
No Waiting Time
Classified Ventures, which operates Cars.com and Apartments.com, uses three of F5's BIG-IP Application Accelerator 3400s to compress traffic and free up bandwidth. After installing the equipment last year, Classified saw a 25% to 33% drop in bandwidth usage. Infrastructure operations manager CJ Murzyn estimates the products will pay for themselves in bandwidth cost savings alone in the first 18 months of operation. And customers don't wait for Web pages to load. "It was painful before we got this in," Murzyn says. "Download times are significantly faster now, and people notice it."
Cisco has a lot of work to do to get back into position. It lags behind application accelerator competitors, such as F5 and Juniper Networks, in features and functionality and tends to be more expensive. While F5 does everything on a standalone device with its BIG-IP platform, Cisco customers who want full-blown application acceleration must buy both the Application Control Engine and the Application Velocity System, adding at least another $26,000 to the cost. Competitors also cover a breadth of protocols and applications, while Cisco's blade initially will support only a few common protocols, including HTTP, and Oracle's business applications.
Cisco plans to add new features, support for more protocols, and better integration, but it will take a while. Gartner's Joe Skorupa estimates a fully integrated platform that supports various protocols and applications might take until the end of the year, and he cautions companies to hold off until then to buy from Cisco.