New devices keep XML data moving

As Extensible Markup Language usage increases, new types of network devices are emerging that allow organizations to efficiently and rapidly exchange information using XML without draining network resources.

XML is on the rise as the way for companies to exchange information among suppliers and partners and as a vehicle for information sharing and interoperability for e-government and homeland security initiatives. XML is also a key ingredient in emerging Web services that link systems via the Internet.

But while XML promises numerous benefits, the markup language requires a lot of processing power to parse, transform and extract information from XML formats. XML's high transmission and processing overheads can cause bottlenecks that hamper system performance.

As is the case with encryption protocols such as Secure Sockets Layer (SSL), which require hardware accelerators that take the SSL processing load off the shoulders of general-purpose and Web servers, XML-aware switches and accelerators are needed to ensure the smooth flow of XML traffic.

"XML is verbose. Terseness is not in [the original] design criteria, so system performance is an issue," said Owen Ambur, co-chairman of the CIO Council's XML Working Group. "There's clearly a need and opportunity to accelerate transmission and processing of XML."

"XML acceleration is the next big nut to crack," now that the SSL processing problem has been solved, said Peter Sevcik, president of NetForecast, an Andover, Mass.-based company that specializes in network performance.

Two vendors attempting to address the coming XML tsunami are DataPower Technology Inc., a Cambridge, Mass.-based developer of the XA35 XML Accelerator, and Sarvega Inc., a Chicago-based developer of the XPE switch.

The XA35, unveiled in August, sits at the edge of a network, fielding and processing only XML requests. The diskless network device offloads XML processing from over-burdened servers without requiring any changes to the network infrastructure, according to Kieran Taylor, director of product marketing at DataPower.

"We've built an XML engine that converts data from XML to HTML; it's not just a switching" product that directs traffic, Taylor said.

Like most switches, Sarvega's XPE makes a decision on where to send traffic, but it's no ordinary switch. The XPE, unveiled in May, features a universal translator that understands all XML dialects. Because each vendor offers its own flavor of XML, users wind up dealing with seven to eight XML formats, said John Chirapurath, founder and vice president of marketing for Sarvega. Each business partner in a supply chain network, for example, may use different types of XML to exchange data.

Sarvega "deals with the ambiguity XML presents" by going deep into data packets to parse XML information, Chirapurath said. After XML data is filtered, the switch can "make smarter routing decisions" based on pre-established rules, he added.

"Traditional load balancers can handle HTTP and HTML traffic because it is reasonably well structured," but can't keep up with XML processing loads, said John Morency, an independent consultant in Chelmsford, Mass.

For example, some benchmark reports indicate that system throughput can decrease rapidly when XML data is added to the mix, Morency said. If a system is processing 10,000 connections/sec with HTTP/HTML traffic, once XML and other Web services-related protocols are added, the throughput drops to 1,000 connections/sec.

Most organizations might not have a pressing need for those tools now, but that will change, Morency noted.

"It's important for users to understand that content transfer and content acceleration are both important for Web services," he said. "Given where IT spending is now, it is not clear that the level of production of XML applications is such that the industry as a whole can use the technology."

Right now, early adopters in such industries as financial services are using those tools for specific application pilot projects, he added. "But nine to 12 months down the road, these types of products will be more significant," Morency said.

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XML aware

DataPower, Cambridge, Mass.

DataPower's XA35 XML Accelerator is a network device that offloads Extensible Markup Language processing from overburdened servers. A self-learning network device, the XA35 doesn't require custom code, Extensible Stylesheet Language style sheets or application program interfaces. Pricing starts at $54,995.

Sarvega Inc., Chicago

The Sarvega XPE switch is an intelligent XML switch that can understand all XML dialects and route XML traffic regardless of size or destination. The high-performance, fault-tolerant system takes advantage of existing network infrastructures. The XPE costs $100,000.

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