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Don't Abandon Your Purpose-Built Network Solutions Just Yet...

Imagine taking your car to the shop for major repairs and finding that the mechanic uses just one tool for everything, from changing a flat tire to replacing your transmission. He explains that he doesn't need all those expensive, special-purpose tools anymore now that he's found this one, All-Powerful Tool.

It sound ridiculous, but similar images come to mind when I hear the suggestion that network appliance vendors need to abandon their purpose-built platforms and deliver their solutions on general-purpose hardware. The argument is that raw compute power has increased to the point that specialized hardware solutions are no longer necessary. But before we write off purpose-built network solutions, let's revisit the reasons why they exist in the first place and consider how significantly they improve an enterprise's ability to deliver mission-critical applications.

Today's advanced application delivery controllers (ADCs) evolved from software-based load balancing solutions designed a decade or more ago to distribute comparatively unsophisticated applications and light user loads across low-speed physical networks. As hardware, operating systems, applications, and networks grew infinitely more sophisticated and mobile devices became pervasive, software-based load balancers couldn't keep pace and were soon moved to hardware platforms. To handle today's massive amounts of traffic and deliver mission-critical applications and data to users from virtually any location and on any device, enterprises need advanced ADC solutions they can trust to be fast, secure, and available, not to mention scalable and fault tolerant to accommodate rapidly changing business needs.

It's tough for a network vendor to deliver on these requirements and achieve the highest levels of performance with a solution that's based on a general-purpose platform. By definition, a general-purpose machine is designed to support many types of applications and workloads and specialize in nothing. And while it's true that technology advances have made today's general-purpose machines magnitudes more powerful than those of a decade or two ago, raw processing power alone doesn't equate to performance. Even if it did, it would be tough to cite that as a reason to do away with purpose-built solutions because they, too, benefit from those same technology advances.

Architecture, not raw processing power, is where performance strides can be made, and that's what gives purpose-built network solutions a distinct advantage. Because vendors of such solutions can choose not only the hardware components (such as CPUs, RAM, and networking devices) but also leverage customized hardware (such as ASIC and FPGAs) to add value, offload processing, and relieve architectural bottlenecks, they are able to provide fully integrated, high-performance, predictable, and highly reliable solutions.

Hardware accelerators integrated into such solutions are specifically designed to greatly speed certain computational processes, such as cryptographic operations. When performed on a general-purpose server, these operations can consume 30 percent or more of the server's CPU and memory cycles--and that's just one example. Acting as a proxy between client and server, a purpose-built ADC can aggregate millions of client requests into hundreds of server connections and cache them for reuse; it can intelligently manage and prioritize SSL sessions; it can apply intelligent compression to data--a task so compute-intensive when performed on a server that it can actually degrade rather than boost performance. It is these specialized hardware components, carefully integrated into the architecture, that enable purpose-built network solutions to scale to carrier-class levels of performance.

In the end, if it were feasible for network vendors to optimize these compute-intensive tasks on general-purpose platforms, don't you think they would? After all, it would certainly make these solutions easier to architect and more affordable to manufacture. When performance counts, however--and increasingly that seems to be the critical need--enterprises gain nothing by abandoning purpose-built network solutions. So when you hear such suggestions, remember why these solutions were built in the first place, not on a whim to benefit vendors, but rather to help enterprises improve efficiency, control their costs, and meet their most difficult and challenging needs: managing massive amounts of traffic in the delivery of mission-critical applications and data.

Posted by Karl Triebes on 01/18/2011 at 12:47 PM


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