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Cisco's AON speaks language of applications

The networking giant positions the "intelligent" network as a platform for business processing and application integration.

Cisco Systems, with the launch of its application-oriented networking (AON) technology, intends to speak a new language -- the language of applications. AON embeds intelligence into the network to provide message-level awareness of business applications, greater visibility and security.

"This is a fairly dramatic enhancement of the functions of the network," said Taf Anthias, vice president and general manager of the AON business unit of Cisco Systems Inc., in San Jose, Calif. "It's about speaking the language of applications, understanding the content flowing over it and providing more value services to customers, with bullet-proof security and visibility."

Cisco will cover the earth; it's part of their positioning.
Jon Oltsik
Senior Analyst for Information SecurityEnterprise Strategy Group

With Cisco's concept of an Intelligent Information Network, the network becomes the platform for enabling IT and business processing. "I see the role of AON as helping customers deploy SOAs [service-oriented architectures] and transition toward SOAs and to XML-based technology," Anthias said. "The network knows how to translate between all different protocols; it leaves the complexity of making applications talk to each other to the network."

AON in particular is speaking the language of software heavyweights IBM and Walldorf, Germany-based SAP AG, collaborative partners in AON. Other partners include software vendors Actional Corp., Tibco Software Inc., and VeriSign Inc.; and services firms Electronic Data Systems (EDS) Corp., and Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC).

The first modules in the AON family are integrated as blades into Cisco routers and switches. Both the Cisco Catalyst 6500 Series Application-Oriented Networking Module and the Cisco 2600/2800/3700/3800 Series Application-Oriented Networking Module are expected to be generally available by year end, Anthias said. Cisco also plans to introduce a network appliance in the future.

New software tools for AON are the Windows-based AON Development Studio (ADS), which allows developers to configure the runtime handling of application messages and the AON Management Console (AMC), a Linux-based Web application for configuring and managing AON nodes.

The notion of using the network to reduce the complexity of middleware software and increase efficiency is not new, according to industry analysts. Some vendors have been taking this tack to speed the routing of messages based on "chatty" protocols like XML, as well as to simplify application integration.

Jon Oltsik, senior analyst for information security at Enterprise Strategy Group, in Milford, Mass., said the market for application-aware networking is growing. "You're seeing more blades, more processing down in the network. You're starting to see the leading vendors step up to the plate and deliver the functionality you need to make this work."

Oltsik cites vendors like DataPower Technology Inc., Reactivity Inc., Sarvega Inc., Layer 7 Technologies Inc., Forum Systems Inc., as competitors in this space, particularly "DataPower at the network layer and Reactivity if you're approaching this as an application middleware bridge," he said.

DataPower, in Cambridge, Mass., "was founded on [the] idea of application-oriented networking or application-aware networking, to operate on messages rather than packets," said Eugene Kuznetsov, DataPower's chief technology officer. "It is about performing functions that today are performed by software. It's using the lessons of the networking world and applying them to application-to-application connectivity."

With these smaller, niche players already in this market addressing areas such as XML acceleration and security, "Cisco will cover the earth; it's part of their positioning," Oltsik said. "But they're behind on the functionality curve. Their jumping in legitimizes the market, but I don't see any great advantage for them in the short term."

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According to Cisco, unlike some of the competitors, AON goes beyond addressing XML to be "application aware." This raises the issue of control, however, said Frank Dzubeck, president of Communications Network Architects, an industry analysis firm in Washington, D.C. "Every application implementation is unique. There are certain applications that may want to override what another application wants to do. For example, inside WebSphere and [BEA] WebLogic are messaging routers. Because this middleware engine says this is the route we're going to take, it overrides the network. If the network decides to do something different, the application is affected."

The fundamental issue that still needs to be resolved is "where do you put this intelligence, and how much do you really need?" Dzubeck said. "The network has a certain function in life -- it can aid and abet IT applications, it can increase the user experience. But you have to have communication. The intelligence layer has to communicate with the network; there's no methodology to do that today."

Another issue is where does the middleware infrastructure end and the network infrastructure begin? As the industry works this out, "the overused word 'convergence' may start to have some meaning," Dzubeck said.

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