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Two Questions for Branding in the Web 2.0 World: Is It Up? Is It Fast?

Keeping your brand alive and well on the Web isn't as easy as it looks

Application Delivery Controllers
ADCs work like this: they accept traffic on behalf of servers, look at the traffic, and make decisions on what to do with that traffic. They also keep track of the servers to make sure they're up and running. If one goes down, then traffic is directed to the remaining available servers. That is their most basic functionality, but they also do a whole lot more.

In addition to server load balancing, ADCs can do SSL acceleration, web caching, compression, content switching, and application firewalling.

How ADCs Help: Keep You Up and Keep You Fast
Server load balancing: This is the most basic functionality of all ADCs. By accepting traffic on behalf of servers, the ADC can select onto which server to forward that traffic. The ADC will often keep a user connected to a certain server for all requests in a process referred to as server persistence, or sticky connection. Finally, the ADC will perform health checking on the servers and will automatically take a server out of rotation if it has been deemed unresponsive. Some ADCs can even check the resource utilization (such as CPU) on the server, and adjust the amount of traffic a server receives accordingly.

Another sub-function of server load balancing is a "sorry server," which is when a primary server is out of commission, but there is a server sending a "technical difficulties please stand by" page. Twitter uses a sorry condition very effectively. There have been times when their capacity is stretched to the limit and can't serve up a user's tweets, but the website overall is very quick and effective. Instead of a very slow-to-load page, a "sorry page" comes up promptly. This can create a lot less animosity in users, rather than a slow, but working page.

SSL Acceleration: SSL is CPU-intensive, and can very quickly deplete a server's resources. Yet, SSL is becoming increasingly more important with regulatory compliance (such as, Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard [PCI DSS]). SSL accelerators remove the workload off of servers and place the burden onto the ADC. Many ADCs have a special ASIC (Application Specific Integrated Circuit) that acts as an additional processor, and is capable of handling tremendous amounts of SSL traffic without affecting the ADC's overall performance.

Caching: By caching content (images, JavaScript files, etc.) the ADC can reduce the workload that the server must perform. Some content is static and since it doesn't change much over time, the ADC can more effectively serve it up, leaving the server to concentrate on the web application.

Compression: If you can reduce the size of an object by half, you can send it twice as fast over the same network link. This can make a website faster, especially for users who are connecting over restricted links, such as when they are on another continent, or connecting through a slow connection. Of course, compression won't be effective on objects that are already compressed, such as JPEGs or movie files, but there are plenty of objects (HTML, CSS, etc.) that can be compressed.

Content Switching: Also known as web switching, an ADC can make a decision on where to send traffic based on information contained within the request. For instance, an ADC can send all JPEG and GIF image requests to a group of optimized image servers, while other requests will be sent to a group of application servers. By dedicating your servers, they can become more efficient in their increasingly specialized tasks.

Application Firewall: Increasingly, ADCs are being used as application firewalls. Network security isn't enough any more. Traditional firewalls will block traffic based on IP addresses and service ports, but will let through traffic that includes a malicious payload. Application firewalls inspect not just the Layer 3-4 information, but also the Layer 7 payload. An application firewall will check the actual requests for malicious-looking activity, something a traditional firewall can't do.

Keeping You Up and Fast Can Have a High Price Tag - But It Doesn't Have To
There are a number of players in the ADC market, but two of the biggest are tech heavyweight Cisco Systems and F5 Networks. They cater to the Internet super-sites and the Fortune 500, with devices that start around $40,000 (for a pair) just to get you in the door. They provide a lot of features, tremendous performance, and they cost a pretty penny. For Fortune 500 sites, they're worth every penny.

However, $40,000 is a lot of money for a Web 2.0 startup on a shoestring budget, or even a long-standing small-to-medium sized business with websites critical to their success. Google (very effectively) throws truckloads of money at infrastructure to make sure they're up and running. But most companies don't have Google's resources.

What about the cash-strapped startups? What's an up-and-coming Web 2.0 to do?

Web 2.0 Startup Needs Are Being Met
There comes a point in every Web 2.0 startup's life when it needs to go from one server to two (or more). When it starts making some headway, it's time to add additional servers to expand capacity and keep the site up if a server were to go offline.

But don't fret; if you don't have the green to spend on the big guys, there is an alternative. A market has developed especially for up and coming Web 2.0 installations, with fully functional ADCs available at fractions of what the major players charge.

Several companies, including KEMP Technologies, offer ADCs geared toward (and more important, priced for) Web 2.0 enterprises with little to moderate financial means. They offer much of the same functionality (server load balancing, SSL acceleration, web application firewall, caching and compression, content switching) that the major vendors have, but at a fraction of the price. Many of these "value-priced" ADCs can be purchased for $5,000 to $10,000 for a pair.

More Stories By Marc Goodman

Marc Goodman is the Director of Marketing at Ecessa. He has over 29 years of experience in the technology industry, with a history of building industry-leading brands for emerging companies, managing product marketing and marketing communications. Joining Ecessa in 2008, Marc is responsible for leading the company's overall corporate and product marketing.

Prior to Ecessa, Marc ran marketing for KEMP Technologies. From 1998 to 2001, he served as senior director of marketing at F5 Networks, where he led the marketing organization, developed an industry-leading brand and managed all marketing functions through a successful IPO. Marc has also served in marketing management positions at UBmatrix, Threshold Networks, SPRY/CompuServe, Cogent Networks, Attachmate and Wall Data.

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