A need for speed: Appliances improve delivery of Web-based apps

Application delivery controllers -- also called appliances -- are a great way to speed things up.

At Subaru Canada, executives are not only focused on the performance of the vehicles they sell, but also on the performance of the company's website. The ever-increasing amount of rich media, video and other assets available to customers through Web-based applications and databases has put pressure on the IT team to find new ways to hasten information delivery.

"Customers aren't just looking for quality and breadth in the vehicle and company information we offer via the Web; they want speed. How quickly they can get at manuals, video, specs and other data is a large part of customer satisfaction," says George Hamin, director of e-business and information systems at Subaru Canada, which supports 86 licensed Subaru dealers.

Hamin says that goal becomes particularly challenging when new vehicles are introduced. That's when customers scramble to the Toronto-based company's website to use all of its multimedia information sources, including customizable vehicle views, short webcasts and price lists.

A need for speed

During those peak times, upwards of 306,000 visitors access the site each month, viewing almost 2 million Web pages. "You've got people requesting and downloading 10MB owner's manuals and streaming 100Mbit/sec. videos. That's a lot different than simply serving up 65KB JPEG images of the cars," Hamin says.

To ensure optimal performance at all times, Hamin first decided to move all of the videos to YouTube and stream them from there. That significantly reduced workload demands on the server, the network and the rest of the infrastructure. But it didn't solve all of his problems, because the site is laden with other rich-media content and has interactive tools that customers use to compare vehicles, find dealers and retrieve parts and service information.

Hamin needed an extra hand, and he got it from acceleration and offloading appliances that help deal with the remaining processing chores. To handle caching, compression and load balancing, he deployed two AX Series application delivery controllers from A10 Networks. Those hardware appliances, which sit at the head of Subaru Canada's server farm, cache all vehicle and logo images and serve them directly to customers; there's no need to hit the back-end servers. For dynamic pages, the appliances compress them after they've been rendered and then send them to the client machine, making for a faster delivery time.

Since deploying the AX Series equipment, Subaru Canada says it has seen infrastructure improvements, including a more than 50% reduction in Web page loading times and a more than 40% reduction in bandwidth usage.

Appliances help ease the strain on servers

Jim Metzler, vice president of business consultancy Ashton, Metzler and Associates, says that the ongoing "webification" and centralization of applications as well as the use of cloud-based systems is putting an intense strain on data centers. Added to this is the application-to-application and database-to-database communication that goes on in back-end environments. For instance, banks are now heavily focused on cross-selling and therefore need car loan, home equity loan and personal loan applications and databases to all work together transparently and quickly. "Any delays could result in a loss of business," he says.

This has led to an increase in the use of physical and virtual appliances to accelerate and control application delivery. Physical appliances are connected to servers, while software-based virtual appliances reside on servers. Often called application delivery controllers (ADC), these appliances can handle any or all of the following functions: server load balancing, TCP offload, SSL offload, caching and compression. Their purpose is to free up server CPU cycles by taking on some of the extraneous tasks that servers routinely perform. However, many ADCs cost as much as servers, and some are much more expensive than the typical server. (See our product listing.)

Worldwide end-user spending for application acceleration equipment, which includes ADCs, grew about 11%, to $801.3 million, from the third quarter of 2010 to the fourth quarter, according to a March 2011 Gartner report.

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