AppCelera: Smart Compression

Packeteer's appliance provides advanced content management and acceleration capabilities.

Version 3.0 of Packeteer Inc.s AppCelera ICX-95 content acceleration appliance gains software-based management and content compression capabilities and upgraded hardware, offering sites a robust, easy-to-use, one-box system that enhances Web application performance.

Simply put, the AppCelera ICX-95 makes Web pages load faster for users with slow Internet connections. eWeek Labs tests showed that this appliance can offer a critical edge to e-commerce sites with graphics-intensive Web pages or pages with a lot of dynamic and SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) content.

The AppCelera ICX-95, released in October, stands out from competitors in its ability to compress a variety of Web content, be it static content such as HTML and XML or dynamic Active Server, JavaServer and PHP pages. The AppCelera also compresses graphical files, including JPEG, GIF and PNG formats.

The AppCelera ICX-95 is competitively priced at $24,000; the ICX-95 with SSL acceleration costs $28,000. Packeteer also offers SSL offloading in the ICX-75 but not on the ICX-55.

AppCelera ICX-95 uses built-in intelligence to make compression decisions based on the type of content, connection speed and kind of browser used. Rival Web appliances from Redline Networks Inc. and NetScaler Inc. provide intelligent server-side content acceleration; we recommend the AppCelera ICX-95, whether by itself or working behind another load balancing device, for companies that put a premium on end-user satisfaction, such as e-commerce sites.

The appliance determines the connection speed of the browser client and how much compression is needed. It compresses content based on the file types and can, for example, convert image files from one format to another to obtain a better compression rate.

New in Version 3.0 is the ability to compress Microsoft Corp. Office documents (including Word, Excel and PowerPoint files). The caveat is that Office files can be compressed only when served to Microsoft Internet Explorer 5.0 or later editions of the Web browser. (IE is currently the only browser that can handle compressed Office file types.)

The AppCelera appliance cannot improve the performance of streaming media file types such as Real Audio/ Video or MP3, and content that uses proprietary binary formats, such as Java applets, is also uncompressible. We believe caching solutions are the best bet for sites hosting Web pages with heavy media content.

The AppCelera appliance can be deployed close to back-end Web servers and can complement other network acceleration devices, including server load balancers and caching appliances.

The appliance runs Packeteers AppCelera Version 3.0 software on a standard hardware platform. The top-of-the-line AppCelera ICX-95 model has an Advanced Micro Devices Inc. 1.5GHz Athlon processor, 1GB of RAM, dual Gigabit Ethernet ports and redundant power supplies. Packeteer also offers the ICX-75 and ICX-55, which have slower processors and less memory, for sites that dont need all the muscle in the ICX-95.

Other content acceleration appliances take different approaches to faster Web application delivery. For example, Redlines T/X 2000 series uses a connection multiplexing technology to send many requests over the same connection to the Web server to improve latency. NetScaler offers Web content acceleration in its RS9200/9600 secure application gateways, which protect against denial-of-service attacks, in addition to SSL acceleration and traffic optimization through compression and caching.

In tests, we deployed the AppCelera ICX-95 inline on an internal test network with our Web servers, desktop clients and a Packeteer PacketShaper. The PacketShaper allowed us to simulate slow connections to our test clients. We set the PacketShaper to simulate 56K-bps modem connection speeds for our clients and used Windows 2000 Professional clients with IE 5.0 and a Windows 2000 Server running Internet Information Services 5.0.

We recorded the time it took two test pages—one graphics-intensive page and another with dynamic content and a Word document—to load on the test client with the 56K-bps connection with and without acceleration. We found that the AppCelera dramatically improved download speeds—in most cases, the pages loaded in half the time with the appliance running. As expected, we got the best results in the test with the Word document, since it was the most compressible of those tested.

The enhanced reporting capabilities in AppCelera 3.0 are also impressive: We could obtain useful diagnostic data such as response time changes, server response time and bandwidth savings. Unfortunately, the reports can be viewed only on a Web browser using Java applets and are not exportable.

Technical Analyst Francis Chu can be reached at