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XML straining network performance, bandwidth

ZapThink reports that XML is putting unreasonable demands on corporate networks, putting companies in search of alternatives to handle the pressure.

For every enterprise that embraces the design efficiency, productivity gains and cost savings of XML Web services and service-oriented architectures, there are an equal number of companies broadsided by the performance and bandwidth demands XML traffic puts on a corporate network.


Read about the pressure being put on the W3C to settle on a single binary format

Read about how XML's complexity could lead to security holes

A recent research report from ZapThink LLC estimates that XML traffic will triple on enterprise networks by 2008, accounting for close to 50% of the messages sent. XML messages are bulky and put a strenuous load on network pipes that could impede a company's deployment of an SOA, said ZapThink senior analyst Ronald Schmelzer.

"The problem is, if you look at the message on the network, it's huge. These are significant loads and you have to parse each part, do a decryption check, directory check and query the document itself -- every single time a message comes in and out," Schmelzer said. "It's just killing some networks. For example, if you want security, some can't afford to do it. Companies have to double their infrastructure, and dedicate more application servers. At some point, it's going to kill them because this is 1/100th of what traffic will be."

Some companies have made investments in hardware or software, like gateways or specialized chips, dedicated to their XML needs. Alternatives to text-based XML, like binary XML, are also being debated inside the walls of the World Wide Web Consortium's XML Binary Characterization Working Group.

What makes it analogous is that we ignored spam until it reached a certain threshold and it started to bog down e-mail servers and hurt productivity. It's the same thing here.
Ronald Schmelzer
Senior analystZapThinkLLC

Binary XML is encoded in a binary format so that computers may easily process it. It also threatens the long-term viability of current text-based XML investments.

"[Binary XML] makes lot of people nervous, and traffic is not going down any time soon," Schmelzer said, making a loose analogy between XML traffic and spam. "What makes it analogous is that we ignored spam until it reached a certain threshold and it started to bog down e-mail servers and hurt productivity. It's the same thing here."

Web services make up a percentage of XML traffic on enterprise networks, ZapThink said, along with proprietary XML formats common to some vertical markets like insurance or health care, and REST-based messages, which are simplified XML exchanges common in point-to-point communication.

By 2010, however, Schmelzer said the Web services payload will grow to 80% of XML traffic.

"XML processing is the equivalent of a postal worker having to open every letter, and reading every part of a letter looking for info as to where to deliver that letter to. That's why there is such an overhead," said John Bromhead, vice president of marketing at Tarari Inc., of San Diego.

Tarari, along with other vendors like DataPower Technology Inc., Sarvega Inc., ZSoft Ltd. and Conformative Systems, sells its own specialized chips to handle XML processing. Schmelzer said this kind of processing cannot be handled by a commodity chip, leaving companies no choice but to either apply more commodity servers to the problem, or buy an optimized gateway. That's why binary XML figures to get a significant amount of attention heading into next year.

"It takes 26 times the computing power to handle XML to handle binary. XML is a self-describing language, but it really soaks up the compute power," Bromhead said. "XML is very verbose, and this balloons up the bandwidth."

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