Contemporary IT infrastructure and applications operate in an extreme environment barely envisioned a decade ago, pushing networks to the limit and challenging the security industry to keep pace. A handful of high end testing products have had to evolve quickly to meet those challenges and evaluate how network and security devices perform under stress, and isolate and repair flaws.

Here's why, in a nutshell: Service provider and enterprise networks are performance-challenged, being called upon to support enormous high speed traffic loads. That traffic is increasingly complex, comprising a growing array of protocols and applications supporting converged IP services: voice, video, data and performance-sensitive online transactions. Throw in plenty of malicious-attack traffic and see how networks, network devices and network-based security products, from firewalls to intrusion-prevention systems (IPS), perform under stress.

How do carriers know if their infrastructure will support their service level agreements with demanding enterprise customers? How do enterprises know if their networks and data centres can support their business requirements and whether their network and security vendors' gear is really up to the job? And how do network and security vendors know that their products can deliver what they claim in their data sheets?

In this Toolbox, we'll explain how products from BreakingPoint Systems, Ixia, Mu Dynamics and Spirent Communications can be used to test networking and security gear and the applications they support to the limit, and how different types of organisations can leverage their unique capabilities. These are very expensive products that require permanent test-lab facilities and dedicated, expert staffing to deliver their full benefit.

Historically, the market has focused primarily on network equipment manufacturers and large service providers. Ixia and Spirent, which have specialised in generating heavy traffic, have dominated in testing load-bearing capabilities in the lower layers of the Open System Interconnection (OSI) stack.

The market has grown broader as the traffic mix has grown more complex, adding more and more protocols, high performance applications, and attack traffic. Security vendors are important buyers now, and some government agencies "look a lot like a carrier or service provider," says Elisabeth Rainge, IDC program director for network software.

Security-sensitive agencies, especially in defence and cybersecurity, are also good customers, especially for those products emphasising security.

Mu and BreakingPoint have entered the competition in recent years, emphasizing power security and application testing. Ixia and Spirent, which are well known for load testing, are moving up the stack as well, augmenting application and security capabilities.

In general, Rainge says, telecommunications companies and network equipment providers tend to still be focused on performance, though there are of course exceptions, while enterprises and service providers with a strong IT heritage tend to focus more on the application layers, in addition to security.

"If you're coming from an IT perspective as opposed to telecom or network, you're thinking more in terms of what application is involved or what is the end user experience or how is this technology fitting with how our business is really doing," she says. "You don't necessarily have end-use case in mind; there's a reasonable chance you're looking at the network as more of a dumb pipe. It's performance rather than what kind of business a company is in."

Very large enterprises are becoming more important as customers. The enterprise buyers are generally large financial institutions, which can lose millions of dollars in an hour's downtime, and very large complex companies.

But potential enterprise buyers are a relatively short list of large organisations that have the money, talent and commitment to testing to justify the purchase.

"Very high end enterprises, major financials, anyone where it's mission-critical and not running standard traffic, guys like an eBay and Amazon, are a good fit for these kinds of tools," says Vik Phatak, chairman and CTO at NSS Labs. "Start talking lower than that, and it becomes problematic. Cost justification doesn't make sense. They're expensive and complicated."