As more companies depend on doing business over the Internet, the e-commerce networks that support those efforts have to be reliable, secure and fast.
Unlike traditional corporate networks, where a controlled number of users elicit fairly predictable server demands, the peaks and valleys in demand for 'Net content require network professionals to learn new ways of setting up their infrastructures. Customers are no longer just throwing Web servers at network performance problems. Instead, they are changing the way their networks handle traffic -- turning to smart devices aimed at getting specific parts of the job done faster. Those devices -- load balancers, Web switches, caches and secure transaction processors -- are helping e-commerce sites meet corporate and customer demand.
Big companies such as Cisco, Nortel Networks and Intel -- along with smaller vendors such as F5 Networks, Extreme Networks and CacheFlow -- are providing Web acceleration devices that create less downtime, greater reliability and better performance than Web servers could in the past.
For example, at Farmclub.com, cache devices are used to store frequently requested content and serve it more quickly than a generic Web server. Glenn Kaino, executive vice president at Farmclub.com, says without the specialized Web accelerators available today, such as caches, e-commerce would not be as successful.
"A few years ago, there were infrastructure demands that made today's e-commerce sites prohibitive," Kaino says. "The things that we wanted to do creatively and what was required to make those things happen in terms of infrastructure didn't always work."
Unlike traditional Web servers, the workhorses of any Web or e-commerce site -- load balancers, Web switches and caches -- are aimed at handling specific jobs.
For example, network managers can turn to caches, which hold content in memory and quickly serve it - making them an ideal choice for busy retail and media sites that get repeated requests for static content, such as catalog images. A typical cache device can range from about $10,000 for a simple device with a few ports to more than $80,000 for a cluster of devices that have added features such as load balancing.
A Web server can range from $7,000 to more than $100,000, depending on the horsepower it packs. On average, a cache handles content requests 50% to 80% faster than a Web server, observers say.
A good example of how cache devices can help sites quickly scale to meet peak demand is the recent Euro 2000 soccer tournament. The site that broadcasts coverage of the event over the Internet withstood the rage of more than 1.4 billion hits from June 10 to July 2, when the final match was captured by France. Coordinators say the site's success had a lot to do with advance planning and testing, as well as cache devices that doled out content, including real-time video, audio and stories in five languages from nine data centers around the world.
Coordinators of the Euro 2000 site including Sportal.com -- and PSINet, which hosted the content on its worldwide delivery network -- used Web switches from ArrowPoint Communications, whhich was recently purchased by Cisco. Cisco's Web switches can process and forward requests based on a variety of policies set by network managers, such as the type of content being requested. The site also used cache devices from CacheFlow. The 28 CacheFlow boxes were located around the world and served up frequently requested content, which freed the Web servers to handle any transaction-type requests and content-origination tasks. Cache devices can sit in front of a Web server or in remote locations on content delivery networks.
The devices' ability to handle such loads will make them increasingly popular in the next few years, observers say. For example, Gartner Group of Stamford, Conn., expects the market for these devices to explode from $370 million this year to about $3.38 billion in 2003.
Load balancers also have a place in the e-commerce infrastructure. Pioneered by Alteon (now part of Nortel) and ArrowPoint, these devices direct Web site traffic intelligently. They can filter incoming requests to Web servers or other devices such as caches and encryption/decryption processors.
Nortel's ACEdirector line of Web switches and Cisco's CS-150 and CS-800 line of switches are part of a new generation of content-aware switches that direct traffic based on the type of content being requested, and even the type of user. For example, a network manager with an e-commerce site could set up policies using these switches, which direct premium subscribers' requests to a bank of servers reserved for their use. The switches recognize the user as a premium subscriber by using a cookie -- information that identifies a user - coming into the site. By setting aside a bank of servers for these requests, network managers can provide more guarantees that paying users aren't waiting for a response.
Devices that intelligently process user requests aren't the only ammunition in network managers' hands. Another class of devices, Secure Sockets Layer offloaders, give a network manager the ability to conduct encryption- and decryption-related processing necessary for secure transactions on a separate device. Intel and F5 offer products that fit into this category. The devices are one more way to speed transactions that would take longer on a Web server.
Load balancers are yet another type of Web acceleration device. This equipment lets customers provision Web server banks for specific uses, such as streaming media or dynamic content creation, and ensure that users are directed to a server that isn't overloaded.
Observers say retailers, financial organizations and media sites are obvious beneficiaries of such traffic management because they often need to tailor sites to users within specific geographic regions. For example, a retailer may offer different items to customers in France and India than the U.S. and Great Britain.
For example, at NaviSite, an Andover, Mass., application service provider, Web switches and load balancers that distribute workload based on policies set by a network professional are used every day to help users scale their Web and e-commerce sites.
"Right now these technologies have been adopted incrementally to deal with the increased demands on our customers' Web sites," says Pierre Bouchard, director of product marketing. "They now think that instead of throwing more servers at a site, they can use a content-aware switch to pick up some of that load and to add more capacity."