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App Aware? Networks Aren't There Yet

Dan O'Shea
12/20/2013

It might seem like the telecom industry has been chasing the goal of application-aware networking for years on end, but the reality at the carrier level is that the migration to an AAN model is far from complete.

The recent Heavy Reading Insider report Application-Aware Networking: The Carrier Perspective (subscription required) gives a different sort of glimpse at a networking philosophy birthed by concerns about the ongoing data explosion, rapidly increasing network complexity, and the ability of service providers to cut through all that to enhance customer experience management.

AAN and the related, parallel trend toward application performance management (APM) have generated some industry debate. They have been touchstones this year for many vendor announcements targeting different zones of the network. These include the traditional hardware sellers (Cisco Systems' Application-Centric Infrastructure strategy) and the software-defined networking upstarts (Big Switch's application-aware Unified P+V SDN switching fabric). APM has inspired a rush among network monitoring vendors not only to get more granular with their monitoring capabilities, but also to ensure their systems can feed network and application data into big data analytics engines (See What Applications Will Want from SDN, Cisco's ACI Gets Physical With SDN, Big Switch Previews App-Aware SDN Cloud Fabric, and Gigamon Steps Up Traffic Intelligence.)

However, Steve Koppman, the report's author, found that some major carriers, including AT&T, were hesitant to discuss their progress on the AAN front. Also, it seems that carriers in general are just now adjusting to the notion that they can't improve application delivery and performance management simply through bandwidth upgrades.

"Until recently, market participants typically believed they could, and needed to, achieve acceptable application performance levels with resources near at hand," Koppman wrote. "New challenges were most often met by adding bandwidth or devices, with no requirement for anything like application-aware networking."

As carriers better understand the need for AAN and the options for making it happen, this long-discussed philosophy will finally come to fruition and bring its promised changes to the networking realm. Koppman sees that happening in another 3-5 years, which (coincidentally or not) is the about same timing as the anticipated software and virtualization revolution.

— Dan O'Shea, Managing Editor, Light Reading

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@mbushong
@mbushong
12/23/2013 | 10:44:06 AM
App-awareness is more than APIs
Part of the reason that app-awareness isn't everywhere is that the "Here is an API" approach basically builds a gate and asks the person on the other side to figure out how to get through it. The real work needs to be a common set of abstractions that work in vendor-agnostic environments. It is not surprising there hasn't been more progress here because the work to-date has been either too low-level (OpenFlow is good, and it doesn't address this type of problem) or too vendor-specific. 

I suspect that the new wave of commercial controllers will start to solve these problems. The endgame might still be a ways out, but at least there is movement now in these areas.

-Mike Bushong (@mbushong)

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