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New F5 application delivery architecture pushes fabrics over boxes

F5 Networks introduces Synthesis, a new way to think about application delivery controllers that emphasizes a fabric over individual appliances.

In an effort to change the way its customers buy and use its application delivery controllers, F5 Networks announced a new application delivery architecture, dubbed Synthesis.

Today, most customers will buy an F5 application delivery controller (ADC) to serve a specific application. As more applications roll out, customers might buy more ADCs. But this box-by-box approach to application delivery is expensive and complex for data center operators, so they deployed ADCs only in front of the most critical applications.

In contrast, Synthesis encourages data center operators to buy and operate ADCs as a fabric, rather than as sets of appliances deployed for specific applications. The architecture is based on F5's existing set of technologies, including its relatively new ScaleN technology, which allows engineers to pool both virtual and physical ADCs together into an application delivery fabric. F5 will also enhance other technologies as part of Synthesis, including the evolution of its Big-IQ management platform into a broader orchestration system.

F5 application delivery architecture: More packaging than technology

Most of the technology underpinning Synthesis isn't new. Instead, F5 is changing the way it markets and sells its products. And it hopes customers will come to use F5 products more broadly.

"This is more than anything else a big marketing announcement," said Mark Fabbi, vice president and distinguished analyst at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc. "They've had most or all of this technology for a period of time. This is a competitive response … a realization that the success they had in the past of selling redundant pairs of Big-IPs has come to an end and that there are better ways to deploy this technology."

Synthesis is a marketing and sales approach that enterprises should pay close attention to because it will change many aspects of their relationship with the vendor. For instance, F5 has thrown out its old product licensing scheme for something far simpler and -- in many cases -- more affordable.

"Today we take Big-IP and [add] licensed modules and value-added services to that device. We're talking a 40-page document with 4,000 to 5,000 SKUs. We're reducing it to two pages and 40 SKUs," said Dean Darwin, vice president of marketing at Seattle-based F5.

The simpler licensing and the increased orchestration focus means data center operators can change their approach to F5 ADCs. Rather than buy a new box or a new set of software modules when rolling out a new application, engineers can deploy the application on the existing F5 fabric and spin up the different Layer 4-7 network and security services that F5 offers on the framework.

"If you can get to the point of having ADCs as a layer of architecture as opposed to one-off capabilities for individual applications, then their value does increase," Fabbi said. "An ADC should sit in front of all your applications. The types of services you need to deploy for those applications can vary quite widely, but the beauty of an ADC is it can apply so many different services based on the requirements of the application. Having a set of pooled resources and creating a layer of architecture gives you the ability to flow more application traffic through that pool of resources."

F5 is trying to simplify how it engages with customers because ADCs are such a difficult technology to implement and manage, Fabbi said.

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"This market suffers from a skills shortage, both in the buyers and sellers," he said.

ADCs touch many different IT silos, including networking, security, applications and servers. An F5 ADC "is an amazing Swiss Army knife, but each blade requires its own expert. Not too many enterprises have an application delivery architect whose responsibility is looking at the overall application deployment model and how to make things faster, better and more secure. The skills are very complex. Synthesis helps people by making it more prescriptive," Fabbi said.

That approach is most evident with the broad reference architecture it introduced in conjunction with Synthesis. The architecture shows customers how to build fabrics to support things like cloud federation, cloud bursting, LTE roaming, distributed denial-of-service protection and DNS scaling.

Fabbi said other ADC vendors, like Radware and Citrix Systems, have adopted similar fabric-based approaches to application delivery, but F5 has been reluctant to follow. Selling ADCs box by box has been lucrative, but the market has started to flatten out, he said. F5 needs to address broader customer problems rather than selling boxes.

"It might reduce the number of ADCs you need in the short term, but in the long term, [data center operators] will run more applications through these platforms. It's in [F5's] best interest."

Are customers and channel partners ready for an F5 application delivery architecture?

F5 will have to convince its customers and its sales channel to go along with this new approach to application delivery. Plenty of enterprises are content to keep buying and using their ADCs just as they always have. But there's a growing segment of companies that want to change.

"Cloud providers and enterprises that are further along in their cloud journey will see if this works for them, but other customers will continue to behave the way they have. They have an issue that requires a load balancer or a richer degree of functionality and they say, 'We just need a box,'" said Brad Casemore, research director at Framingham, Mass.-based IDC.

"It will come down to how their channel partners respond," Casemore continued. "They've done a good job over the years of assembling a high-performing channel and those channel partners are used to selling the hardware and installing and supporting a box. This is a little bit different. As we make this transition, you'll find that a certain class of partners [will] really do well with this and others won't."

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