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AON takes integration to the wire

by Phil Wainewright
August 11th, 2005

With its launch of AON, Cisco has highlighted the potential for network devices to supplement or even replace traditional software-only application integration.

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XML-aware network devices within a service-oriented infrastructure can make integration simpler, faster, cheaper:
  • Several vendors already have an established track record
  • Cisco's entry brings mainstream attention to the sector
  • Application-oriented networking is built around XML messaging
  • Cisco says AON can slash integration development costs
  • Other vendors say customers spend less on integration software too

Glossary terms: AON, middleware, XML, distributed, SOA, lookup tool

Application-oriented networking — the concept behind AON — isn't a new idea, even though Cisco claims its variety will prove more advanced and pervasive than current products. A number of vendors — some with track records dating back five years or more — already offer dedicated hardware devices to speed XML operations between distributed applications. Customers have successfully used their products to cut costs and boost performance in SOA environments.

But the potential contribution of network devices is largely overlooked in mainstream SOA design, and there is little best practice to draw on.

The XML appliance sector had always seemed something of a backwater niche until network equipment vendor Cisco arrived on the scene in June. Having enlisted influential partners including SAP, IBM and Tibco, Cisco has forced a re-evaluation. Existing vendors have of course welcomed Cisco's market entry as a huge validation of what they've been doing.

"The biggest network company and the biggest enterprise software company in the world are both agreeing that there is a new [layer] of hardware infrastructure needed to make this work," says Reactivity VP of marketing Joelle Gropper Kaufman, referring to Cisco's AON partnership with top application vendor SAP. "Can I do it all in software? Even SAP is saying you can't," she concludes.

This is quite a turnaround in perceptions, given that using integration software — middleware — to link up applications is so ingrained that few IT professionals have hitherto given hardware-based alternatives so much as a second glance. There's widespread ignorance of what these devices are capable of, as one appliance vendor's customer admitted to Loosely Coupled, recalling the low expectations his team had had before evaluation started. "DataPower had these published performance numbers that everyone here was laughing at. But when we tested it, it delivered the performance. I don't know what they have under the covers, but it's pretty impressive."

Defining AON
Accelerating certain XML operations is one part of the story, but there are other aspects to application-oriented networking. The defining characteristic is the ability to examine and act on the XML content of messages being passed over the network. Building on this core capability, network devices can translate and route the messages between applications; provide access and data security; and capture information for forwarding to other systems. These built-in functional capabilities are then configured with the required runtime policies — on routing, security, monitoring and so on — via a network connection. The policies can be specified either from a remote console application or via a programmatic interface — for example, using SOAP-based web services.

Moving these integration functions from traditional middleware into a purpose-designed hardware device can be shown to yield significant cost and performance benefits, depending on the nature of the integration.

Middleware replacement
Cisco has been keen to downplay any suggestion that AON will replace existing middleware, but it still talks up the cost advantages of its network-based approach. It says the main savings will come from slashing the money spent on developers and professional services. "Customers will still use middleware on the application server platform," says Taf Anthias, general manager of the AON division. "But there's a lot of ways that you use it — it's about looking at the problem of total spend on making applications collaborate together. It's about eating into costs."

But DataPower's CTO and founder Eugene Kuznetsov claims Cisco is minimizing talk of the middleware replacement potential for the sake of building its partnerships with vendors like SAP, IBM and Tibco. "The reality of it is that there's a collision course here," he says. Although applications that require a lot of process logic will still need the full J2EE-based stack, simpler middleware processes won't: "For example, going from COBOL to XML. That's going to be the place where this sort of XML-aware networking is going to be an alternative — is an alternative — to the middleware."

This is an abridged extract from a six-page special report published in the July/Aug 2005 Loosely Coupled monthly digest. To read more about how early adopters of SOA have deployed application-oriented networking, subscribe here today.

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Cisco AON
Vendor's introduction to application-oriented networking

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Loosely Coupled monthly digest July/Aug 2005
Contains the full six-page text of this article, including customer experiences and use cases, as well as other case studies, analysis and news.


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