Cisco bolsters potency of QoS

Cisco this week is expected to announce a significant extension of its policy-based network initiative, one that gives users greater control in allocating network services to business applications.

Called Cisco Content Networking, the extension will include enhancements to the company's CiscoAssure policy network hardware and software for IP telephony, as well as for e-business applications such as electronic commerce, customer care, and supply chain management. The release will go beyond the Layer 4 packet classification capabilities already offered by Cisco for quality of service (QoS) and allow devices to look deeper into application packets and dynamically assign or reassign network services and re-sources.

In addition to enabling QoS, sources say Content Networking will let Cisco routers and switches automatically "self-configure" a network based on traffic type, and assign security, caching and server load-balancing policies to applications.

Currently, TCP/IP applications are classified and assigned particular network services based on their static Layer 4 TCP and User Datagram Protocol (UDP) port numbers. But some applications, such as SAP R/3 enterprise resource planning packages, do not have a standard IP port number designation, making it difficult to classify and assign network service levels to that traffic.

Key to enabling Content Networking is what Cisco reportedly calls Network-Based Application Recognition (NBAR). NBAR is software that brings deep packet inspection, dynamic port number assignment and other "intelligent" services to Cisco network devices.

For instance, NBAR switches and routers will not only be able to recognise Citrix WinFrame applications, but also the individual Microsoft PowerPoint, Excel or Word applications running within WinFrame, sources say. WinFrame is server-based software that is intended to provide access to Windows applications across any type of network connection to any type of client.

NBAR devices will then be able to configure and assign the appropriate network resources to the individual applications within WinFrame.

"It's one thing to know that you've got a WinFrame flow, but it's another thing to be able to break out what's happening within WinFrame [that might] require different qualities of service," says Chris Nicoll, an analyst at Current Analysis.

NBAR currently only runs on Cisco's 7100 and 7200 routers, but eventually all IOS-based routers and switches will support the software, sources say.

In testing

Cisco declined to comment on Content Networking and NBAR. A Citrix spokeswoman says the company has a joint application service provisioning announcement with Cisco this week but declined to go into further detail.

However, Cisco customer Bank of America, has been testing NBAR for the past three months.

"NBAR gives us the ability to better manage our applications and what the applications' requirements are across a ubiquitous network infrastructure," says Will McDuffie, a Bank of America vice president for architecture management. "The objective is to be able to get high utilization with service levels across a shared IP environment so you can get economies of scale."

Among the applications Bank of America is testing and looking to enhance with NBAR as it migrates them to IP are voice and telephony, SNA and real-time trading floor programs, McDuffie says.

"We look at NBAR as an enhancement to enabling QoS and policy-based routing," says Thor Draper, a Bank of America vice president and lab services manager. "So far, we've been fairly pleased."

Though NBAR is able to classify traffic by looking beyond the Layer 4 information in an IP packet, Bank of America would like to see enhanced support for non-IP protocols, Draper says. The fact that NBAR is currently only supported on Cisco's 7100 and 7200 series routers limits Bank of America from large-scale deployment, he says.

Analysts say NBAR will face competition from Nortel Networks' Preside service-enabling software, which was announced last week. Preside includes APIs that bind a customer's IP service profile to directories for personalized customer care, billing and provisioning applications.

Analysts say NBAR will face further competition from 3Com, which is expected to unveil a new CoreBuilder 9000 switch this week targeted specifically at enabling policy-based networking. The switch is expected to include an embedded Windows NT module for running NT-based network service, policy and directory applications.

Lucent is also expected to enter the fray.

Pricing and availability of NBAR components were not available at press time.

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