F5 streamlines application delivery controller operations with iApps

With its iApp framework, F5 Networks simplifies the process of getting an application up and running on its application delivery controllers.

The evolution of load balancers to application delivery controllers has provided enterprises with countless features and functionality that improve application performance and security. But with those application delivery controller features come complexity.

Just getting a new service up and running on an application delivery controller (ADC) can take weeks of configuring and tweaking settings and features. With the latest version of its core product, BIG-IP, F5 Networks has introduced iApps, a new framework aimed at removing some of that complexity.

When configuring an application delivery controller, an administrator may have as many as 1,200 individual settings to choose from, said Andre Kindness, senior analyst with Forrester Research. 

That means even setting up a service as generic as Microsoft Exchange on an ADC is not trivial.

"If I'm about to roll out an Exchange server, I need to [apply] all these settings to it. Some admins [who] resort to something like an Excel spreadsheet create a checklist and a configuration template so that they can manually do all these things," said Eric Hanselman, research director at The 451 Group.

In getting Exchange up and running on an application delivery controller, administrators may have to set up the POP email inspection engine to do spam blocking and email inspection. They may have to configure ports for Outlook Web access, and if the enterprise wants to do ActiveSync with mobile devices, the administrator may have to configure the ADC to identify mobile devices with public key certificates.

This complexity isn't welcome in today's enterprise environment where IT organizations are pressured to deliver more and more applications every day, Kindness said.

Among Forrester's clients, one European truck manufacturer is building a service that uses sensor technology to manage truck maintenance for trucking companies, and a food manufacturer is creating a consumer recipe service which generates a shopping list that pulls data from local grocery stores in order to guide shoppers to the right store.

"[These services] require more applications. So you need to free up more resources in order to keep your costs the same. Not everyone is able to deploy [more applications] because they're bogged down," Kindness said.

iApps: Intelligent implementation of template on application delivery controllers

In BIG-IP version 11, F5 has introduced iApps customizable frameworks for deploying applications on F5 appliances. Each iApp consists of an application template and a combination of services and analytics that make it easy to apply those templates. These iApps are tied to individual applications, rather than a physical box. That means if an application migrates within or between data centers, it will carry the iApp framework with it. F5 describes this application-focused approach to service delivery as an application control plane.

"The iApp templates allow you to define just the needed components for optimally delivering that application," said Jason Needham, director of product management for F5. "It's a policy-driven delivery system that allows collaboration between application teams and network teams. As you interface with our devices, you no longer have a collection of independent objects and services. An administrator will essentially get an application-centric view of all the components in an application delivery controller that are required to deliver that application."

F5 is rolling out more than a dozen initial iApps for leading commercial applications and services like SharePoint and Exchange, and it will roll out additional iApps on an ongoing basis. Customers and partners can customize these iApps and create and share their own via DevCentral, F5's online user community.

Scaling application delivery controller infrastructure across boxes with Scale-N

F5 also unveiled its new Scale-N feature, a technology that allows enterprises to dynamically distribute workloads associated with an application or service across multiple application delivery controllers in one or more data centers.

"This allows us to have active-active failover across any array of devices," Needham said.  "When you put these devices in a cluster, you might see a situation where a customer just wants to down or failover a particular service. We can now do that without affecting the other services on the box."

So, for example, if a huge influx of email enters the system and overwhelms a chassis, an administrator could easily react.

"You can move some of the Exchange handling tasks like POP inspection to another system, or just spread around those loads,” Needham said. “In version 11 that’s a manual function. You can take a look at different loads on each chassis and manually shift those around. In the long term they will get to the point where that is automated."

Most other application delivery controllers are fairly statically configured and don't allow this dynamic distribution of services across boxes, Hanselman said. However, vendors who offer production-quality virtual ADCs offer some flexibility.

"Because it's a virtualized instance [of an ADC], it can move around in your infrastructure in the same way, but you can't break up services the same way you can with an F5 box," he said.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Shamus McGillicuddy, News Director.

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