Web acceleration began as a method to speed online commerce sites. The idea was that if you could reduce the time to download a Web page, users would view more pages, have a more pleasant experience and, in theory, spend more money.

The bulk of the Web acceleration marketplace in the e-commerce space focused on two approaches: speeding up Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) sessions and accelerating the delivery of static content (e.g., image files of merchandise). But as e-commerce shifted from “the” killer Web application to just one of many features of today’s Web experience, the issue of accelerating commerce sites lost a bit of its panache.

Don’t get me wrong—companies still spend big bucks on products and services to improve site performance, but as with any new market, once enterprises discovered the performance issues and chose solutions, the hype about and interest in Web acceleration tools have been reduced to background-noise level.

At the same time, a new use for Web acceleration technology has emerged. CIOs are taking a second look at Web acceleration products and services, and this time, it’s in regard to the delivery of Web services.

Same tools solving new problems
“We’re just starting to get an understanding about Web services and how we can use them,” explained William Ebdon, IS manager at a Dallas law firm. “It’s very early in the game for us, but what seems clear is that [with Web services-enabled applications] we’ll have to deal with the same Internet performance problems as our other Web applications.”

It was at a former employer that Ebdon got his first taste of Web acceleration tools. At the time, he was managing an e-commerce site and had to figure out how to handle site traffic surges and solve slow Web page delivery times.

“We started with the basics: load-balancing switches and SSL accelerators to help improve overall site performance and to help handle surges in traffic and handle large numbers of simultaneous transactions,” said Ebdon. “Then we turned to a caching service [called a content delivery network] to get around Internet latency problems so we could improve page download speeds.”

With Web services on the horizon, Ebdon is eager to see how the same acceleration tools will help solve new problems.

Providers starting to maneuver
As general interest in Web services grows, some believe corporate efforts will quickly turn from determining which Web service architecture to use (e.g., Microsoft’s .NET, Sun’s Java Web Services, or simply distributed XML-based applications) to deploying business-class services.

Already, several well-known content delivery network service providers are lining up in the Web services acceleration camp. Providers targeting this market include Akamai Technologies, Inc.; the company formerly known as Digital Island, which is now part of Exodus Communications, which also includes Cable & Wireless, Mirror Image Internet; and Speedera Networks.

Rather than simply delivering static content like image files or Web pages, these new Web service acceleration services focus on improving application performance. For instance, a network designed for a Web services-enabled application would act as the underlying transport mechanism that links the distributed elements of the application itself. Basically, a company would use the network to distribute small chunks of an application’s code to the edge of the provider’s network. Customers and remote internal employees would interact with the distributed objects, which in turn would communicate over the provider’s backbone. The processes on the edge of the provider’s network could include supporting Java processing or XML caching.

This distributed approach to delivering Web service-enabled applications has a couple of advantages. First, much of the interaction between a user and an application is done closer to the user, avoiding Internet latency problems. Second, the distributed nature of this approach means that it may not be necessary to significantly increase the infrastructure or computing systems in a corporate data center as more Web services applications are rolled out.

So many vendors, so little time
CIOs seeking help with Web services acceleration, however, will face a persistent problem with the technology—while there are many products, no one solution is best for every application or enterprise. Dozens of vendors offer Web acceleration hardware and software solutions, many of which focus on a niche aspect of accelerating content delivery.

For example, at one level, there are the hardware vendors offering load-balancing switches and caching appliances. At another level, there are software vendors whose products optimize TCP and HTTP sessions to improve page download times. Add to that the content delivery networks designed specifically to accelerate the delivery of static or infrequently changing information, and the traditional service providers who use their network’s high capacity or improved routing techniques to guarantee delivery of quality streaming media.

CIOs and tech leaders can expect all of these vendors and providers, who have been touting Web acceleration benefits all along, to position themselves in the Web services acceleration market. As the market is still relatively new, it’s difficult to tell which segment of the acceleration market will be of the most help with Web services.

The best thing a CIO can do is to keep asking existing Web acceleration vendors and providers for concrete examples of their Web services acceleration products and services, and to watch for more mature and defined products to come along.