These days, it seems like a dozen new network "extras" - including traffic monitors, packet inspection technologies and management products, to name just a few - are launched every week, all advertising large-scale gains in performance, security and ease of use.

But why is this glut of network-centric add-ons happening now?

The rapid swelling in the number of ancillary products designed to make modern business networks work more efficiently may be, in large part, a consequence of a major shift in the way companies use those networks.

"Traffic flows, especially in the data centre, have shifted fairly dramatically over the last five to seven years," says Abner Germano, Juniper Networks' director of enterprise marketing.

The continuing transition away from the client-server model of computing, in the business world, means that the existing tree-like architectures used to service complex networks are increasingly inefficient, he says.

"The networking industry has been growing extremely rapidly for the last 20 years. But in the enterprise, the time from 2000 to 2009, a lot of people standardised on Cisco. In many ways, that was the right decision to make at the time," Germanow says.

His colleague, senior product marketing director Dhritiman Dasgupta, says that shifting traffic patterns have made parts of the consequent network structure redundant, however.

So-called "flatter" networks, unburdened by the older multi-tiered model, "are at the heart of cloud computing," he states. The rapid growth in Ethernet speeds - from 100Mb to 1Gb to 10Gbps and so on - also helped to create new capabilities, while simultaneously exacerbating architectural concerns.

Past a certain point, however, simply adding fatter pipes in order to boost performance becomes vastly less economical than restructuring the way the network handles traffic.

According to Germanow, this changing value proposition is substantially disruptive to the market. Therefore, many seek to apply existing technology to new problems, often without a thorough understanding of what they're doing.

"There are a lot of people running around with hammers going 'that's a nail,'" he says.

Confusion

Rick Tinsley, CEO of WAN optimisation provider Silver Peak, says a lot of the new network products are focused on web traffic and cloud technology.

"These areas often get confused. And, frankly, a lot of the analysts in the early days predicted that the application delivery controller market and the WAN optimisation market would ultimately merge. That absolutely has not happened," he asserts.

WAN optimisation, Tinsley argues, is a highly specialised technology, distinct from many other kinds of "optimisation" currently being pitched.

"There's a lot of things that people would call 'optimisation' that, I think, are not what we do, and we don't do what they do," he says.

More root causes

According to Gartner Research Director Lawrence Pingree, many companies entered the market for various types of network accessory partially due to demand caused by the recent recession.

"A lot of the factors that we're seeing in the trend data that we have are probably because of that shift in mindset to consolidation, cost savings and eking out additional efficiency," he says.

However, much of the value in the new wave of network add-ons is derived from their monitoring capability, rather than any direct influence on performance.

"Visibility is probably the most important thing," Pingree adds. "Traffic shaping products have been around for quite some time," though he notes that those, as well, provide some informational value.

The Gartner research director says that the advent of multi-core technology allowed for visibility far beyond the usual port and protocol level - a requirement for today's increasingly complex network infrastructure.

Pingree likens today's network to an automobile. "You can go as fast as you want, but you have no idea how fast you're going. In essence, these products provide the speedometer. And maybe that speedometer is used to look at speed, maybe it's used to look at security, but in general layman's terms, it's used to give visibility."