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SOA networks: Cisco envisions service-oriented data center

Cisco Systems Inc. envisions using the network as the platform for SOA, says Mark Weiner, director of product management and marketing for Cisco's Applications Delivery Business Unit. In this interview, he explains how network devices that began as load balancers for Web applications have evolved to perform more complex functions including security and protocol translations in SOA implementations. Off-loading such tasks from application servers provides greater performance and scalability for SOA applications, he argues.

How would you summarize where Cisco's SOA networking technology fits into the overall SOA environment?
In my role at Cisco I'm on the data center solutions team. A key area of focus for Cisco is the data center. Within the data center, allowing our customers to get more and more service-oriented is a key component of our vision as well as our development strategy. In doing that we've developed numerous innovations in the data center area. Several are around application networking including our ACE XML Gateway, which takes traditional application and TCP application load balancing up to the SOA level. It performs the functions typically done for a standard TCP and other application up to the SOA layer, including load balancing, destination routing, security and inspection, off-loading of processing from your SOA and application servers and putting that function on the network.

We're doing that using standard protocols for the SOA environment. It's very much a drop-and-play solution for initial SOA enablement and off-loading of the server environment. As we get deeper into our portfolio of products, we have our AON set of solutions, which take those benefits to yet a higher level with a broader range of features that can be customized to a specific SOA environment, specific application set, or a business process that is going to be service-oriented. Then finally to help further service-orient the data center as a whole, we have additional technology, such as our announcement last July, our V-Frame, which actually orchestrates virtualization and services across Cisco and third-party data center technology. We're going from service-oriented applications to a fully service-oriented data center where you can provision servers, virtual servers, storage, application networking, switching and other resources based on application policies and inspection. This is really enabling SOA through a services-oriented data center.

That's a brief summary of Cisco's focus on the data center, then adding services orientation across it and deeply into the applications supported by the data center. How do you see SOA networking evolving?
From having been early in the cycles early in this decade as the original load balancing market was rejuvenated after the after the dot-com bust. Having seen some of that technology come to light that took a lot of the functions off the server, I've now seen this new technology in the last two years with SOA networking, and I see the same benefits. Instead of pulling SSL and TCP and the lower level layer three and layer four functions off the server. Now, I can see the layer seven and layer eight – using the old OSI model [Open Systems Interconnection Basic Reference Model] stack of different layers of processing – taking these higher level functions off the server. What would be an example of that?
For example, with security inspection you are going from application one to application two in a four-application hop as you complete a transaction booking an airline ticket. Imagine each of the servers having a firewall from one to the other to determine if it's safe, the network does that and the server gets to do its job and serve. Or think of translating protocols. App two to app three has different sets of protocols potentially. The network can do the translation as well as manage and send the traffic on from server two to server three. It lets the servers do their day job and serve. The network's perfect for this because it spans the whole length and doesn't care about which sets of protocols or about the different software vendors. It's the perfect venue to help SOA get more broadly enabled without having to do the resource tasks.

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Do the benefits of the SOA network come down to the common buzz words of scalability, reliability and performance?
It does, but it really goes to some of the more data center consolidation and green-net messages. You can perform the same function, roll out your apps, be more agile while using a whole lot less computing resources because you are not taxing the server to do a bunch of processing and translation functions. You're letting the server serve. Whether it's a Web app from 1999 or 2002 that a load balancer did its job and essentially said to the server: "You're not doing TCP encrypting for your Amazon transaction. That's my job. You just tee up the computing process, complete the purchase and process the credit card." It's the same thing when allowing a much more transaction intensive SOA environment to do routing from applet one to applet two to applet three to applet four, doing the security checks. Mitigating the protocol differences because you're going from four applets that were never built initially to run together. All those functions, the translation, security, performance and the availability, all that can be done on the network. And again, the server can do its job and run the application or the applet. That's really the value proposition of SOA networking products.

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