F5 Takes Networking Virtual With BIG-IP

Main operating system behind F5 networking gear gets a major refresh with an eye on virtualization and application delivery controller scalability.

By Sean Michael Kerner | Posted Apr 26, 2010
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The move to the cloud isn't just about virtualizing servers. It's also about building efficient networking elements for cloud-based application delivery. That's behind F5 Networks' move to update its core BIG-IP delivery platform, which aims to help enterprises to more efficiently leverage the cloud deployment model.

The new BIG-IP 10.2 release is being accompanied by a new virtual application delivery controller (ADC) and a new BIG-IP Edge Gateway. BIG-IP sits at the core of all F5 (NASDAQ: FFIV) products, and with the update, F5 is aiming to enable a dynamic services model across its product portfolio.

"We are really trying to execute towards a vision of how we think the IT industry has to transform in order to take advantage of cloud computing," Kenneth Salchow, senior technical marketing manager at F5, told InternetNews.com.

Part of that vision involves virtualizing networking gear itself. F5 is now debuting a virtual edition of its core ADC product with BIG-IP Local Traffic Manager (LTM) Virtual Edition (VE).

Salchow said many enterprises have already made investments in ADC technology. But as those enterprises start to leverage the cloud model, Salshow said that there are issues that they need to address if their cloud provider is using different ADC technology.

"We really think that the ideal solution for many enterprises is a combination of physical and virtual ADCs," Salchow said.

He added that as enterprises move to the cloud, they can move their BIG-IP Local Traffic Manager (LTM) out to the cloud as well. As a result, users will have the same control and visibility in the cloud that they already have in their own datacenters.

Virtualizing hardware-based networking appliances is an emerging trend this year. Blue Coat recently announced virtual versions of its ProxySG WAN acceleration appliances.

Unlike some competing solutions, however, F5 LTM VE offers all the same power that F5 LTM provides. Salchow noted that the biggest difference between the physical and virtual versions of F5's LTM is the virtual edition's lack of the intellectual property that F5 has in its hardware appliances.

"Our physical appliances are not just off-the-rack hardware," Salchow said. "However, there are a number of use-cases in the cloud where the impact of not having that hardware assist is negligible."

Traditionally application delivery controllers have been thought of as load balancers, but with the latest BIG-IP release, F5 is also delving into WAN acceleration and optimization as well, it said.

"If you have the WAN optimization module on our LTM devices, you now have full data duplication and application-specific acceleration," Salchow said.

Additionally, F5 has developed what it calls Ether-IP tunnel capability, which enables an enterprise to extend the VLAN on which a virtual machine is running all the way to another datacenter. The benefit of extending the VLAN for an LTM session is that even as virtual machines migrate across datacenters, users will still be able to maintain their connections to their applications.

Also part of F5's product update is the new BIG-IP Edge Gateway, which can perform SSL-VPN functions as well as authentication and integration with single sign-on services.

"We can authenticate the user, verify that they are allowed to be on the network and use certain applications, and then provide access directly to those applications," Salchow said. "If the application the user needs is not currently in the same datacenter location that the Edge Gateway is located, we can use the secure and optimized tunnels to dynamically deliver the applications, regardless of where they are."

Linux no more

Though F5's BIG-IP has its roots in the open source Linux operating system, Salchow noted that at this point, F5 has moved beyond those roots.

"The microkernel is Linux-based, but everything on top of that including the [Network Interface Card] drivers is ours," he said. "Our BIG-IP operating system is built from the ground-up for our hardware to do what we need to do with it."

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.

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