As insurers "Web-enable" their core applications to provide agents, claims professionals, customer service representatives and customers access to data and transactional functions, poor Web site performance becomes more than an annoyance to end users. It becomes a critical component to a company's success.A London-based firm that operates a hub for cedants, brokers and reinsurers to collaborate, share data and transact business online realized the importance of this issue when London users of its Singapore-hosted data management center (DMC) application reported slow page refreshes and data downloads.

With its entire business model based on online collaboration and transactions, ri3k Ltd. moved quickly to implement an application delivery network service, called NetLightning, from Palo Alto, Calif.-based Netli Inc.

Within days of implementing the service, the performance for remote users of ri3k's DMC application improved by 300%. Users in London experienced sub-second response times, which was within 10% of the download time for local users in Singapore.

A thorny problem

"We saw an immediate performance increase, and we didn't have to do anything to the application to make it work," says Sab Ahmad, chief technology officer at ri3k. Plus, he says, "the lead time to implement it was a couple of days. There was no headache with it whatsoever."

"Netli was started (in 1999) to solve a thorny problem," says Brian de Haaff, the firm's senior director of product management. That is, the challenge of delivering local area network-like performance for dynamic Web applications.

More companies are moving their core, high-value applications online to take advantage of the Internet's ubiquity and low cost, he explains. But the Internet was never designed for remote users to traverse the far reaches of the Internet to interact with dynamic applications in a centrally located enterprise data center.

As a result of the inefficiencies of the Internet, Web-enabled applications often aren't adopted, he says. Or, companies are forced to replicate data centers close to end user populations to eliminate the latency inherent in the Internet.

"That can work, but it's extremely expensive and difficult to maintain over time," de Haaff notes. "Especially if you're dealing with rich applications with lots of information like you have in the insurance industry."

Indeed, ri3k considered re-architecting its DMC application to host it both in Singapore and the United Kingdom. But that option was cost-prohibitive, according to Ahmad. The company also considered moving the application entirely to the U.K., but that also would have been expensive-and would simply transfer the performance issues from London to Singapore users.

For temporary improvement, ri3k implemented what Ahmad calls "sticky tape" solutions. "We tried redesigning the front end so there wasn't such a large download," he says. "And we tried switching on the SSL (Secure Socket Layer) only when it was really necessary." Those remedies, however, were short-term as opposed to the robust, reliable solution ri3k was seeking.

Fewer round trips

That solution turned out to be Netli's NetLightning service. "By its very nature, the Internet was designed for connectivity and failover," Netli's de Haaff says. "It enables heterogeneous (devices) to communicate with one another." But it was not built for performance of Web applications over long distances, he adds. "So the farther you are from the application, the worse its performance."

That's because for every page or transaction traveling over the Internet, 20 or 30 "round trips" are required on average to complete it, he says. "It's like going to the grocery store and rather than putting all your bags in the car at one time, you have to go back for every single bag."

Netli's patented technology, which the company developed from 1999 to 2003, reduces the number of round trips per Web page or transaction down to two or three. "So if a page or transaction were taking 200 milliseconds per round trip and 30 round trips, you're talking about six seconds of delay," de Haaff says.

With only two round trips, the delay is a mere 400 milliseconds. "That's how we enable any end user around the world to experience the application as if they were sitting in the data center right next to it," he adds.

Ri3k's London users noticed the 300% performance improvement and began calling and sending e-mail almost immediately, according to Ahmad. "They made comments such as, 'What did you do to the site? It's running really well.' And, 'Can we see what you've done? We'd like to implement it for our own systems.'"

Netli introduced the service in April 2003, and since then has signed more than 20 customer across industries, including Dell Computer, Hewlett-Packard, Nielsen/NetRatings, Nokia and Motorola.

What's more, de Haaff views these early adopters as the tip of the iceberg.

"When we speak to C-level executives, Web enablement is one of the biggest priorities on their to-do list," he says. "But the only way you realize the benefits of Web enablement is to ensure end users are taking advantage of the application."

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