A new appliance promises to improve website performance and deliver quality of service for web users. FireNode, from CatchFire will manage connections with individual users, telling them upfront if the website is on a go-slow, and making sure that priority traffic – such as paying customers – goes through.

"Ninety percent of UK online customers have had to abandon web transactions," said Guy Daley, chief executive of CatchFire Systems. “Seventy percent of these were for £200 or more, so companies are losing money, and losing customers.” A survey for CatchFire found that the biggest problem is not outright failure, but “brownout”, when the server approaches peak load and the response time increases exponentially.

Unlike previous attempts to speed up web sites, FireNode approaches the problem from the user’s point of view, said Daley, tagging packets relating to an individuals’ web requests so that more important traffic can be sent through, but making it clear to the user what the website is doing: “We set expectations at the beginning of the transaction,” he said.

The device prioritises traffic according to the customer’s identity, the activity they are performing and other factors such as which page they are viewing. For instance, paid content could be guaranteed delivery, while free content could be delivered on a “best efforts” basis – unless the reader is a priority customer.

Daly likened it to a restaurant’s doorman, who manages visitors according to how many tables are available. “We manage expectations,” he said. “If the server can’t deliver the whole page, it won’t start.” Instead, users will get a busy signal, a warning that performance is slow, a promise to email when the web site is less busy, or even a reservation guaranteeing quick service during a less busy period.

The software runs on a general purpose rackmount system, and should not offer a bottleneck, said Daly: “We only look for the specific packet at the start of the transaction.” A basic model offers “surge supporession”, while more sophisticated versions offer a guaranteed emergency access channel – for customers such as government departments – and prioritisation.

The produts can be linked to systems management products such as HP OpenView or Micromuse, so that priorities can be changed proactively, when a network component failure is likely to reduce capacity on the website, said Daly. Unwilling to be drawn on how much the device would sell for, Daly said “It will be sold on how many visitors it supports at at any one time.” It would be priced to compare with a load-balancer, he said, hastening to add that it was not competing with conventional loadbalancing. Although CatchFire promises it can eliminate the need to over-provision in case of surges, it is also not competing with the “on-demand” solutions from server manufacturers, said Daly.

CatchFire’s only problem may explaining to users why its product is different from the procession of load-balancing, prioritising and web-switching appliances that have been touted to increasingly-jaded IT managers as solutions to this problem, over recent years. If nothing else, a new approach to the problem is a welcome sign of life ion the network industry.