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Virtualization: Article

SOA World - Racing Without a Speedometer

Is your accelerator really solving your network problems?

Accelerators, Application Delivery Controllers (ADCs), application switches...whatever you call them, this new breed of performance enhancing appliances is selling like hotcakes. The market for these turbochargers has zoomed from zero to over $1 billion in the span of a few years, heading towards what Gartner estimates will be $3.7 billion in annual sales in 2008.

Yet even as IT organizations are spending up to $100,000 a pop on these boxes, few have any idea how well they're working. These high-octane accelerators are like Formula One racecars without a speedometer - the pedal is to the metal, but is it fast enough? Racing without a speedometer might be fine on an empty test track, but as enterprises deploy increasingly complicated and crowded Service Oriented Architectures (SOAs) with hundreds or even thousands of Web Services, not knowing the speed you have to spare can be a prelude to an ugly crash.

Fortunately, there are ways to measure performance, ranging from using separate monitoring appliances to several vendors' plans to build speedometer technology directly into the accelerators.

This article will discuss the actual impact of acceleration on network and application problems in Service Oriented Architectures using real-world examples, and compare and contrast the efficacy and efficiency of the various speedometers available.

SOAs, Web Services, and the Network
Service Oriented Architectures and Web Services are revolutionizing application development. Web Services are loosely coupled modules of code that communicate with each other and the outside world via specific standard protocols such as SOAP-formatted XML. The key is that interactions with each Web Service follows a rigorous standard, which abstracts the application logic so that the users or other Web Services trying to access a particular service can do so without requiring any knowledge of the underlying network and server infrastructure that the Web Service runs on. This allows application developers to focus on application development, rather than learning network topology or server configurations.

Developers can write new Web Services or they can use products that expose existing code as a Web Service. Those same developers, or any others for that matter, can then rapidly create complex "composite" applications out of these component Web Services, saving time by reusing common Web Services for multiple applications.

Using these flexible technologies, enterprises can lower the cost of Web application development, shorten the development cycle, and improve the flexibility of business processes. This increased speed and adaptability are very appealing to businesses, especially as approaches like server virtualization, "Web 2.0," and Software as a Service (SaaS) become more prominent in the enterprise. When business runs on the Web, every business has to run on Internet time.

However, while in theory Web Services and SOAs abstract away low-level issues like network performance (one of the reasons that they are wildly popular with application developers), in practice, they actually increase the impact of network issues and the importance of performance monitoring.

When Applications Attack: How Slowdowns Impact SOAs
While Web Services and SOAs may allow application developers to avoid considering issues such as server capacity and network topology while creating a new application, the applications that they create must run in the real world. No matter how many layers of logical abstraction separate the application code from the actual infrastructure, the fact remains that at the end of the day, Web Services still rely on CPUs executing code, and networks carrying packets of information back and forth between them.

As a result, network and server slowdowns will still impact the performance of Web Services and SOAs. In fact, it's likely that the Web Services built into SOAs are more vulnerable to slowdowns than their predecessor applications. Composite applications, by definition, weave together a complex web of interdependent services. And thanks to the aggressive deployment of reusable components, a single Web Service slowdown may have far-reaching consequences for many different applications, rather than taking down a single monolithic application, as may have been true in the past.

Moreover, abstraction doesn't come for free. Using the SOAP protocol to exchange information via XML may be a much cleaner method from a code standpoint, but from a network standpoint this XML traffic is bulkier than the communications it replaces. Even when network conditions are good, Web Services and SOAs require increased bandwidth, and when things go wrong, this added overhead goes straight to the performance bottom line.

Clocking the Impact of Acceleration
As a result of the vulnerabilities of Web Services and SOAs to performance issues, many organizations have turned to application acceleration appliances to improve performance to acceptable levels. These network appliances use various techniques to improve application performance, including compressing the data to be transmitted, caching commonly requested data, off-loading non-essential processing such as SSL processing from Web servers to a dedicated device, and prioritizing bandwidth for critical applications.

There are two principal types of application accelerators, symmetrical and asymmetrical. Symmetrical accelerators put acceleration appliances on both the end-user and the data center ends of the network pipe. Some vendors sell pairs of appliances that can, for example, accelerate the speed at which a branch office can access files in a centralized data center. These symmetrical accelerators play a critical role in WAN strategy, but less so in Web Services and SOA because of their highly distributed nature. When Web Services users can exist outside the boundaries of the enterprise, it's important to have an acceleration product that can serve anyone or anything trying to access the service in question.

The second kind of application accelerator, and the primary focus of this article, is the asymmetrical accelerator that puts one or more acceleration appliances in the data center and does all the compression at the server rather than at the branch office or client level. These asymmetrical accelerators have become common for both enterprise and customer-facing applications, and leading vendors have done a brisk business in accelerator boxes by helping application owners get the performance that they need from their new applications, including Web Services and SOA deployments.

For example, one Midwestern state needed to replace the 20-year-old mainframe system it used to distribute information about criminal cases and defendants (www.citrix.com/English/aboutCitrix/caseStudies/caseStudy.asp?storyID=22594). The state upgraded to a modern Service Oriented Architecture based on the Microsoft .NET platform. The new Courts Information System (CIS) consolidated this vital information, as well as making it accessible to all of the different courthouses (87 in all), judicial officials, and courthouse employees across the state's court system, including criminal, juvenile, civil, family, small claims, mental health, probate, and traffic courts.


More Stories By Hon Wong

Hon has served as CEO of Symphoniq Corporation since its inception. Prior to joining Symphoniq, Hon co-founded NetIQ, where he served on the board of directors until 2003. Hon has also co-founded and served on the board of several other companies, including Centrify, Ecosystems (acquired by Compuware), Digital Market (acquired by Oracle) and a number of other technology companies. Hon is also a General Partner of Wongfratris Investment Company, a venture investment firm. Hon holds dual BS in electrical engineering and industrial engineering from Northwestern University and a MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

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