Network managers concerned with user experience face their biggest challenges over the wide area. LAN-like performance is the goal for users at home or branch offices, but many network managers have a hard time keeping application service levels up to par on their local networks, never mind across distributed offices supported by varying levels of connectivity.

This year, network managers are looking for a more integrated approach to tackling application performance on LANs and WANs, according to industry watchers.

"Application performance is becoming more and more WAN-dependent, considering the percentage of businesses supporting workers off-campus," says Dennis Drogseth, a vice president with Enterprise Management Associates. "Going forward, the LAN and WAN shouldn't - and probably won't for much longer - be mutually exclusive. The WAN can be a vehicle for helping overall application performance by showing where performance breaks down."

Others speculate there is a lot of work to be done before the worlds of application performance management software on LANs and application acceleration devices optimising WANs can come together.

More integration needed
"WAN-application delivery will continue to drive application performance improvements, but more integration will be required in the future as application management, specifically problem identification, drives more required functionality," says Stephen Elliot, a senior analyst with IDC. "Hardware vendors have a lot more to learn about application infrastructures; they are more than IP packets."

For example, application performance management on LANs until recently focused mostly on measuring application and server response times. Now with traffic-monitoring and packet-capture tools from such companies as Network General, Network Instruments, Network Physics and NetScout, network managers can get an idea of how a network and applications interact and monitor application performance on LANs in closer to real time.

WANs offer a different scenario. Optimisation tools tackle applications as a series of packets targeted for caching, compressing and accelerating. But a poorly configured application might not respond as expected to optimisation techniques and could require an overhaul to improve LAN and WAN performance.

Application-acceleration vendors such as Array Networks, Certeon, Exinda Networks, Expand Networks, F5 Networks (which acquired Swan Labs), Orbital Data, Packeteer, Riverbed Technology, Silver Peak Systems and Tacit Networks work to deliver best-of-breed capabilities. Recently these companies also have been working separately to integrate more features, such as SSL acceleration, into their boxes.

Expect consolidation
It could be all for naught, however. As vendors such as Cisco (with its Actona Technologies and FineGround Networks acquisitions) and Juniper (which bought Peribit and Redline Networks) further integrate their product suites, industry watchers expect to see more market consolidation in 2006 via partnerships, technology integrations and acquisitions.

For example, Thomas Mendel, a research director and vice president with Forrester Research, speculated in a 2005 report that with its FineGround purchase, "Cisco will ultimately migrate FineGround's functionality into its Catalyst switches. This will give Cisco the ability to do Ethernet switching, server load balancing, firewalling and application acceleration - all in one chassis."

Network managers may be hesitant to invest in new tools considering the numerous products available, and for now could resort to their own measures in-house until one vendor can deliver multiple features in a single tool.

"We have distributed Compuware Network Vantage probes throughout our WAN to monitor and watch traffic," says Scott Richert, director of network services at Sisters of Mercy Health System in St. Louis. "We like to be aware of application performance over the WAN.''

Jon DeLaCastro, IT director at TripPak Services in Denver, uses his standard monitoring tool - Aprisma Management Technologies' Spectrum (part of CA since the April 2005 acquisition of Concord Communications) - as well as some QoS measures across his network. "We implement acceleration, compression and encryption on our Cisco network devices," he says.