XML Appliances Optimize Web Services in the Data Center

Enterprises are increasingly turning to service oriented architectures (SOAs), both to exploit SOA's potential for eliminating redundancies and accelerating project delivery though the consolidation and reuse of Web services, and as a means of streamlining business processes among departments and organizations.

But there's a rub: Web services carry a big overhead because the data exchanged is formatted with XML tags. XML provides a structured way to add context to data so that it can be shared among different applications, but it's a wide load. Because it's text-based, it can take up between 30 and 50 times more bandwidth than other protocols.

There are plans afoot to trim XML's waistline, primarily the W3C's XML Binary Characterization Working Group's scheme for encoding XML docs in binary form--think of Binary XML as XML on Pilates. But we're not there yet.

Enter the XML appliance, a relatively new combination of hardware and software designed to crank up the speed of XML document processing and/or secure XML-based communications.

According to analysts at the New Rowley Group, a Georgetown, MA-based technology market research firm, XML appliances perform a range of tasks, including inspecting XML docs for viruses, transforming XML into other formats (such as HTML for Web browsers), routing XML to make sure it's from a trusted source, and encrypting XML to keep data from unintended recipients.

XML appliance vendors compete with traditional enterprise software companies and server makers to provide an infrastructure aimed at optimizing networked application performance and security.

"The problem is, with XML Web services and SOA, there's nowhere in the network that actually delivers reliability, predictability and security as you connect those services and expose them to other services," says Joelle Gropper Kaufman, marketing VP at XML appliance vendor Reactivity. "And if you're talking about services to be used with any level of enthusiasm, they've got to be responsive. Our customers have found that by adding a layer of infrastructure right between the network layers and the applications, they are able to simplify, secure, and accelerate their XML. The network as it stands today without an XML infrastructure doesn't deliver that."

Belmont, CA-based Reactivity, which makes hardware and software designed to help businesses securely manage and provision XML Web services, is set this week to unveil a new product optimized for deploying enterprise XML Web services within and among data centers. The company's new SOA Gateway is designed to provide the performance and key infrastructure functionality required to easily and securely deploy intra- and inter-data-center Web services.

"Enterprises are going through something of a radical restructuring of the data center," says Andrew Nash, Reactivity's CTO. "Instead of application-specific servers, network architects are looking to organize data centers around a service model. That leads to a need for a much higher level of confidence in the ability to watch, log, audit, verify and report on exactly how the transactions were handled and in what order. As a result, optimization in this area and the ability to effectively integrate with infrastructures that deal with ID structures like SAML (Security Assertion Markup Language) becomes much more important."

Christopher Crowhurst, VP and principal architect at Thomson Learning, says that one of the greatest challenges his company faced when it came to deploying XML Web services in the data center was identity and access enforcement. The Stamford, CT-based company is a provider of tailored learning solutions for the academic and corporate training markets. Two features of Reactivity's latest offering sold Crowhurst on an appliance-based solution: Reactivity's Federated Identity Reference Architecture, which works with existing authentication and authorization systems to ensure transactional trust across sequenced Web services and provides a unified record of the identities associated with every transaction and the company's high-performance SAML acceleration technology.

"[These features] make real-time SOA a reality, providing the speed and security we need to deploy complex, high-volume Web services in our data centers," he said.

Gartner analyst Mark Fabbi sees a clear need for a dedicated XML Web services infrastructure. He says that enterprises don't want to have to mix and match discrete functional solutions to meet each of their Web services deployment needs. "By using a different approach to creating a Web services infrastructure," Fabbi said in a statement, "one that places the emphasis on deployment requirements, it becomes possible to have, in one solution, all the key functionality needed to deploy Web services within a specific deployment environment such as a data center or a DMZ."

About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached at [email protected].