Organisations today employ widely distributed IP networks that deliver Web-based and client/server applications world-wide. Even with ample bandwidth, application performance can slow to a snail's pace in this environment, seriously hindering a company's ability to do business.

To address this challenge, networks need to become more application-aware. That is, intelligent networks must be able to identify and understand Layer 7 application protocols to optimise or carry out application-specific messages. By identifying types of application messages, such as high-priority and latency-sensitive signalling messages, or by recognising message content, such as a purchase order or stock trade, a network can apply message-specific optimisation, security or routing policies. With greater application-aware functionality, remote offices can experience LAN-like performance, boosting employee productivity.

Application-aware networks also enable IT managers to monitor application performance constantly and optimise bandwidth and spot trouble early. This enhances application operation and the overall IT infrastructure - all without the huge expense of building out a network or reworking applications.

For example, a major insurance company began to deploy a home-grown, Web-based application that had taken more than two years to develop. The application tested well in the data centre, so the company was optimistic about delivering an important claims-processing function to its many branches across North America.

The deployment hit a serious snag, however, when employees tried to access the application over their WAN. Application performance slowed to a crawl, and frustrated workers began to miss their quotas. An application that was supposed to boost productivity reduced it instead, forcing a premature halt to the roll-out.

Upgrading the network itself was irrelevant, as bandwidth utilisation was less than 20 percent and upgrading would have done nothing to mitigate the latency. Alternatively, the company could have rewritten the claims application to minimise the number of traversals, but rejected this option. Instead, it chose to deploy affordable application-aware network devices that understood its Web protocol. By so doing, the network became more efficient in delivering the performance employees needed. In fact, application response time improved 2.5 times without changes to the application or user systems.

Today the extended enterprise infrastructure is expected to support the most demanding business applications efficiently and securely on a limited budget. Many options exist, but organisations are discovering that, by embedding intelligence and common functions, application-aware network products offer a more easily managed and more affordable way to deliver higher levels of performance and add greater functionality across an IT infrastructure.

Issy Ben-Shaul is director of engineering of Cisco's Application Delivery Business Unit.