Cisco has jumped into the network application performance market with a set of four software tools and an equal number of companion services, all based on a new service-oriented framework.

The Network Application Performance Analysis (NAPA) suite includes software for application analysis and network planning, an appliance for managing bandwidth quality and a dashboard application for viewing information about system performance.

It includes software to predict how new applications and services will affect existing network infrastructures, advises on the changes needed to optimise for those new applications, identify trends, and help resolve problems. Some NAPA components are Cisco-developed, but others come from partners, such as OpNet's VoIP Analysis tool, which assesses whether an IP network is voice-ready.

"As networks become more abstracted, fewer people understand the bits and bytes, that's why tools like NAPA are needed," said Clive Foreman, VP of Cisco's network management technology group.

Ayman Soliman, a senior network architect at Thomson Financial in New York, has been testing Cisco's network planning software for the past two weeks but said he still hasn't learned enough about the product to decide whether to deploy it.

He said the tool could help him assess the risks of making changes to Thomson's network, which includes about 3,000 routers and switches in 56 countries. "In a complex infrastructure, if you deploy a new feature, you want to know the effects on the network," he said. But a thorough test of Cisco's new software is required because it will cost "in the upper $200,000 range".

Cisco has not yet disclosed pricing on the NAPA components. The network planning and application analysis tools are available now, while the bandwidth quality appliance and performance monitoring dashboard are due in March.

Existing application performance management vendors have claimed Cisco was bringing nothing new to the party. "If you look at Cisco's announcement, that could almost be our website," said Stuart Beattie, Network General's European marketing chief. "It validates our position that applications are where it's at."

Beattie noted too that the initial release of NAPA can only analyse a snapshot of the network, and lacks the long term monitoring capabilities offered by Network General's InfiniStream and other similar devices. "Some will buy it because it's Cisco, but others will say 'We need more than that'," he predicted.

"Customers have told us that today they have to figure out for themselves which software tools to bring in, then integrate them themselves," countered Clive Foreman. "We are doing that for them with NAPA." He added that Cisco will also be able to tightly integrate NAPA with its hardware.

Jon Collins, principal analyst with market researcher Quocirca, said NAPA could benefit companies looking to cut the number of technology suppliers they work with. "We know enterprise companies don't want to work with 15 suppliers, they want to work with Microsoft, IBM, Cisco, maybe a couple of others, and call it quits," he said.

However, other analysts said that Cisco's focus on managing applications in the network will be a challenge, especially if the company shows an unwillingness to inter-operate and partner with other vendors of management tools.

Cisco wants to become "a strategic partner with IT managers in optimising application performance across the infrastructure," said Dennis Drogseth, an analyst at Enterprise Management Associates. "But no C-level executive in their right mind is going to look for a truly strategic answer that's embedded exclusively in a single hardware brand."