IP Application Delivery: The Unsung Hero of the CDN Industry

Content delivery networks play a key role in improving user experiences on the web and are responsible for the growth we have seen in the consumption of online content. All content providers rely on CDNs because they provide an effective medium to avoid the global limitations of the public internet. They add value through edge caching by delivering popular content locally from a cache server deployed within a region and completely skipping the latency ridden middle mile as well as through intelligent routing and optimization to avoid congestion at the Internet peering points.

Today’s CDN market is heavily fragmented. [See: cdnlist.com] A majority of the vendors broadly call themselves CDNs, which is a generic term these days, but in reality are focused on a smaller piece of the pie. Vendors such as Level 3, for example, are deeper into the video and large file delivery ecosystem. Others, such as Instart Logic are focused on front end optimization for publishing, retail and ecommerce customers. Some vendors, like Aryaka, run upstream towards the premium enterprise segment.

With the broad coverage of premium content offerings, video and other consumer content delivery has enjoyed extensive coverage by the media, vendors and analysts. Out of the 30+ CDNs today, 20 or more provide value for static content and video. Only a handful truly focus on dynamic content delivery. There is a niche offering in the CDN market that is seldom talked about, one which is very different in terms of technology. IP application delivery or IP application acceleration is likely the unsung hero of the CDN world. It provides value for enterprises with 100% dynamic content with no edge caching capabilities included and isn’t something that’s sold strictly on price, giving CDNs much higher margins.

So how did the need for delivery of dynamic IP applications come about? Legacy ERP, CRM and HR applications were hosted centrally in a client-server model for distributed access within the company’s internal wide area network. MPLS networks combined with WAN optimization appliances did a fairly good job of accelerating employee access to these applications.

However, the enterprise ecosystem has become exceedingly global and mobile over time, while the need for collaboration is stronger than ever. Partners, suppliers and customers have become a part of an integrated supply chain that needs access to these centrally hosted applications from anywhere in the world. So, client server access and WAN needs have changed. Also, MPLS with on premise optimization cannot be deployed for every partner and customer alike. IT teams are faced with the unique challenge of making these applications, that have traditionally been behind the firewall, available to public users.

Pushing these enterprise applications outside the firewall and the use of the public Internet as a mode of access poses the same challenges that content and media customers faced before their adoption of CDNs including latency, congestion, packet loss and jitter. Poor application performance especially in the enterprise space, results in low adoption rates and lost productivity.

Enterprise mobility is different from the issue of delivering cacheable content to a mobile device. The need is to accelerate not just HTTP but practically any IP application, irrespective of the application layer protocol. Fortunately, a few CDNs have recognized this need. IP application acceleration solutions cater to the challenge of providing high performance, cost effective access to centralized applications like the use of distributed SSL VPN by users directed to centralized concentrators, Citrix, FTP and Remote Desktop across globally distributed partners, remote employees, mobile workers and smaller international offices.

Some IP Application acceleration solutions cater to application performance needs through intelligent routing of dynamic traffic over the Internet middle mile. TCP Optimization combined with persistent connections reduces handshaking to a minimum and leads to improved response time. However the public Internet is still a major bottleneck when it comes to delivering dynamic applications with greater real-time needs. The middle mile over the Internet with optimization may be considered intelligent but the Internet is still a shared medium. And even though its availability within a region may be plentiful, across peering points and during rush hour there is still tremendous congestion, packet loss and poor performance.

If you are looking for an ideal solution for your IP application acceleration needs, I would recommend you consider the following issues before you make a decision:

  • Are your users regional or truly global with a footprint into the Americas, Asia Pacific and Europe? If global, the best solution might just be one that is built over a dedicated private network to completely bypass the unreliable public internet for IP application delivery. This would enable end users to experience stable latency and consistency in application performance.
  • For dynamic applications, ensure that the solution includes intelligent features such as TCP optimization and persistent connection capabilities so as to provide acceleration benefits.
  • Ensure the solution is application agnostic and not limited to only one or two applications like SSL VPN as some vendors provide other possible use cases like Citrix, FTP server and RDP.
  • A real world trial for a subset of your critical locations on the vendor’s production network is a great way to determine application performance.
  • Pricing models for IP application delivery can range from simple pricing based on locations, bandwidth and applications to a fairly complex exercise for certain vendors.

The IP application delivery market still presents an unexplored opportunity in the CDN space. More companies are entering this segment of the market, but many still haven’t made the transition to value add services. The competition is scarce with Akamai, CDNetworks and Aryaka trying to capture market share. Akamai is the largest in the space and CDNetworks primarily sells outside of the U.S. Aryaka seems to have an interesting solution for this market, which they claim is truly application agnostic and built on top of a private network. Other CDNs are somewhat in the space, and have limited offerings, but haven’t really gotten them to scale or been able to win a lot of business to date. The CDN market is moving towards more value add services and CDN vendors are still trying to enter those markets and diversify their revenue away from just commodity CDN services. Akamai’s been successful at this for years, CDNetworks has shown success outside the U.S. and Aryaka’s been very aggressive in the market lately, which is getting them into more deals. This is a segment of the CDN market to keep an eye on as Web App Acceleration and IP Application Delivery services are the future of the CDN industry.