Forget the bar scene, the golf course or the water cooler. Anyone seeking a place to socialise these days doesn't have to look much further than the nearest Web browser. Thanks to the proliferation of such online tools as blogs, wikis, social bookmarks, podcasts and RSS feeds, robust, real-time interaction across the web's wires is becoming the de facto communication method for many consumers and corporate employees.
The rise in popularity of such mechanisms, often referred to collectively as "Web 2.0", has opened a bevy of options for users -- and a new set of challenges for those IT professionals charged with managing them.
From new security concerns to worries about a loss of control over their computing infrastructures, network managers are coming to grips with the implications of an Internet that is quickly becoming more associated with socialising than surfing.
Although the Web 2.0 moniker means many different things to many different people, to enterprise network managers the term primarily refers to two things: internal collaboration between employees, often involving user-generated elements such as maps and discussion forums; and customer-facing applications that allow outsiders to communicate with each other, through the firm's web site, using Java and Java-like tools.
In both scenarios, the end result is a proliferation of apps and content floating around the network that system administrators did not put there, and of which they might not be able to keep immediate track. For many, this loss of control is a nightmare scenario. Riccardo La Rosa, director of emerging interactions for Boston-based consultancy Molecular, says the control issue "is always a concern" among his clients. "That is usually what keeps them up at night," he says. However, they also realise that they have to relinquish some control if they want to play in the social networking field. Often, it is a gradual process.
"They're trying to put some boundaries around it. They let one piece of the content go and they'll see how users are going to be involved with it, but they won't let everything go."
According to Christian Renaud, Cisco Systems' chief architect for networked virtual environments at the Cisco Technology Centre, control is a double-edged sword. "You want to have compliance and standards (around Web 2.0 elements) but at the same time you're going to get [departments within your organisation] that trot out applications and go renegade if there is too much pressure and control."
The key to avoiding such Web 2.0 wars, Renaud says, is effective communication.
"It's a matter of engaging in dialogue with the various content groups because they have different domains and they will have different use cases," Renaud says. [They] are not going to have the same footprint from a network-manager perspective so it does require something other than a one-size-fits-all mindset."
Once the control issue is rationalised, issues around how to deal with Web 2.0-style traffic quickly arise. According to Robert Hansen, president of California-based security consultancy SecTheory, the non-static nature of some of that traffic can require a significantly higher rate of call-and-response from Web page to server than was the case with Web 1.0 traffic.
"In terms of load on the server, it can increase (if you have) one of those applications that requires tons and tons of back and forth, like Google Maps," he says. "Rather than a single static map, you're seeing hundreds and hundreds of requests back and forth, tons of XML communications. It's a much heavier experience for a single page."
One way around that, Hansen advises, is to cache the content in various places on the network. Static elements such as images can be cached on the edge through content delivery services offered by such firms as Akamai Technologies. Non-static content is best stored at the database level, he says.
"You are basically storing information in memory so you're not having long lookups. By doing this at the database level, you're still taking the hit but maybe reducing the load on the system and the delay it takes to return that data."
Hansen also recommends caching non-static elements as static ones and "changing them out once an hour, once a day or whenever you make changes to that content rather than having it served out of a database every time." Doing so reduces the load on the database and speeds up the return of the query.
Another way to ward off any crippling network snafus is to have an effective backup plan in place, according to Cisco's Renaud.
"When pictures start showing up (on the network), managers start paying attention, and when video starts showing up, hopefully they have a contingency plan in place as far as how to do traffic distribution and content management and that sort of thing."
Andy Gelfond agrees. As director of engineering for travel community Web site TripAdvisor.com, he knows all about dealing with Web 2.0-style traffic. The business, after all, is founded on bringing travelers together over the Net to share opinions and talk about everything from whether the food is good at the Buenos Aires Holiday Inn or what airline to choose when heading to Holland. The site attracts 20 million monthly visitors and features 10 million reviews and opinions. That's a lot of content.
"You have to do capacity planning because you might have a tremendous hit on the network," says Gelfond. TripAdvisor has used its rollout of a services oriented architecture (SOA) to help manage the traffic.
"We have set up services that are tuned to users patterns," Gelfond says. "We found out how people dealt with other people." These services represent a different Web 2.0 element, including a wiki feature, user reviews and maps. The services are integrated into the front end interface that customers see.
The advantage of SOA, Gelfond says, is that each service is separate from the others, thus eliminating any chance of them affecting each other. And maintaining order is crucial to keeping the site humming along.
"We have a significant user base. You get obvious issues of one person inviting 20 others, and you can quickly gain a lot of users."
Despite his team's success, Gelfond adds that maintaining order in the Web 2.0 world is a never-ending process. "We learn as we go," he says.