Web Acceleration Titans Akamai, Citrix Link Up

In one corner of the Internet traffic delivery world is Akamai, with its own network for in-the-cloud traffic acceleration. In the other corner is Citrix, with its NetScaler hardware for accelerating traffic. Until this week, while many enterprises used both network acceleration titans in tandem, there had no formal relationship between the two.

That now changes with the news that Akamai and Citrix have formally become partners in a dramatic move to tap into each other’s technologies to further accelerate application traffic.

The move could have widespread competitive implications in the hotly contested acceleration market, where vendors including Cisco, Riverbed and Blue Coat Systems are vying for share.

“This is a recognition both by customers as well as two industry leaders that in order to solve application delivery scenarios truly end-to-end, there are certain optimizations that are best in the cloud and others that are best in the datacenter,” Neil Cohen, senior manager for Akamai application acceleration, told InternetNews.com.

“The idea is that customers can now get better performance, availability, scale and security for their application then either service could provide on it own,” he said.

It’s not immediately how much users may expect to gain in speed from the partnership. Citrix and Akamai plan to issue an upcoming benchmarking report detailing the benefits.

As part of the companies’ agreement, they’ll establish a partner assistance program designed to make it easier for integrators and resellers to offer bundled solutions. There will also be an online community built around sharing the best practices of enabling Citrix hardware with Akamai’s network.

At least initially, however, Akamai will not be reselling Citrix hardware and Citrix will not be directly reselling Akamai’s network, Cohen said.

Though both have been selling their respective solutions individually for years, the reason for partnering now has a lot to with market maturity, they said.

“Increasingly, application delivery is looked at as a vital function for the business,” said Greg Smith, product marketing director in Citrix’s Application Network group.

That wasn’t necessarily the case a few years ago, Smith told InternetNews.com, with different teams within an enterprise handling network and application needs.

Handing off traffic

While the two companies’ partnership is being formally announced this week, Cohen said Citrix and Akamai have been working together for the past six months to make their technologies work well together.

During the testing period, part of the work involved identifying how to seamlessly hand off packets from NetScaler to the Akamai service.

Enterprises traditionally connect to the Akamai network using a DNS-based approach. Cohen said a site would connect to a canonical name, so instead of going to mysite.com, they connect initially to akamai.mysite.com.

By doing so, the DNS records are modified so that the content now comes from an Akamai Edge server — as opposed to the original host.

“From an end-user perspective, if they type in a Web application address, they’ll get to an Akamai server where we’ll optimize the Internet protocols back to the edge,” Cohen explained.

Now, “the edge to the datacenter will communicate with the Citrix NetScaler box via a persistent TCP/IP data connection,” he said. “Then the NetScaler box communicates back to the origin server.”

Akamai’s game

The deal continues efforts by Akamai to better connect the datacenter to its network. In October, Akamai launched its on-premises IP Application Acceleration service.

As part of that service, Akamai deploys a device within a customer’s network to serve as an on-ramp to its own network. But Akamai spokespeople said the IP Application Acceleration offering doesn’t compete with the Citrix partnership.

“The reason we employ a box in the datacenter is because certain applications, like VoIP and [other] latency- and loss-sensitive applications, benefit by doing optimization not only to the edge but all the way to the datacenter,” Cohen said. “It has nothing to do with type of functionality that a Citrix NetScaler-type box does around things like SSL and TCP offload and load balancing, so the offerings are completely complementary.”

Additionally, Cohen added that now Citrix and Akamai are partners, there might be some discussion about how to optimize each one’s devices for the other.

Another uncertainty is whether Akamai is pursuing similar partnerships with other vendors. Cohen would not say whether the Citrix deal is exclusive and whether Akamai had spoken with other hardware vendors.

“We’re not discussing specific details about the contract that we’ve put together with Citrix,” he said. “I can say we’re extremely committed to making this partnership successful. It is a big investment and we’re very selective with who we choose to partner.”

In any event, the news also continues aggressive maneuvering in the application acceleration space. Leading acceleration vendor Blue Coat has been busy lately bolstering its own business with the recent acquisition of Packeteer for $268 million.

While the Akamai-Citrix deal could pose a threat, Blue Coat spokesperson Steve Schick told InternetNews.com that while the partnership should help extend Akamai’s reach, it doesn’t introduce anything new.

“More importantly, it does not address the branch office problem,” Schick said. “The critical application delivery problem exists in accelerating centrally managed data and applications to branch offices. Since the combined solution doesn’t solve the branch office challenge, it would not be competitive in any way to our primary business.”

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