Taking ADCs to the Next Level

By Paul Rubens | May 24, 2012 | Print this Page
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F5 Networks is consolidating its grip on the very high end of the application delivery controller (ADC) market with the release of its new Viprion 4480 chassis and 4300 blade.

The 4480 replaces the 4400, launched some four years ago, as F5's top of the range chassis, but what makes the release really interesting to very large enterprises, service providers, and what F5 terms "web monsters" is the new 4300 blade that can be used with the new chassis.

The 4300 blade is many times more powerful than the companies previously top of the range 4200, and fitted with a full set of four 4300 blades, the new chassis makes the highest capacity ADC available anywhere.

Side by side: 4300 vs. 4200

To get an idea of how much more powerful an ADC based on the new 4300 Viprion blade is compared to a 4200 based system, let's take a closer look at the differences between the two pieces of ADC hardware:

In terms of raw specs, the 4300 blade sports two hex-core processors for a total of 12 cores, compared to the 4200's two quad core processors with a total of eight cores. The 4300 is also equipped with 48 gigabytes (GB) of memory and a 600GB hard drive, compared to 16GB of memory and a 160GB hard drive in the 4200.

Another key difference is that the 4300 blade offers hardware-based compression offload at a rate of 20 gigabits per second (Gbps), according to F5's figures, compared to the software-only rate of 12Gbps on the 4200. So the 4300 offers almost double the compression speed of the older blade.

When it comes to SSL offloading the differences are even more apparent. Both offer hardware-based SSL offloading on a dedicated ASIC, but the 4300 offers three times the performance of the 4200, and is capable of carrying out 150,000 transactions per second with 1K keys, or 30,000 with 2K keys.

But what makes the 4300 blade really special, according to Henry Tam, a product manager at F5, is the fact that it offers two 40Gbps Ethernet ports to support new 40Gpbs infrastructure.

"This offers performance that is head and shoulders above any other ADC solution out there," he said.

Given that each 4480 can play host to up to four of these 4300 blades, that means in theory the platform can offer 320Gbps of L4 throughput -- compared to 72Gbps for the older 4200 blade. Overall performance -- L4 and L7 throughput, SSL throughput and hardware compression for application acceleration -- is between two and six times greater than other competing ADC offerings.

Is there a demand for high-end ADCs?

But is there really a demand for this type of high end ADC platform? Casey Quillin, a senior analyst at research group Dell'Oro, believes there is, and this demand comes from many different parts of the market.

"Cloud Providers like a Google and Facebook need them to provide content to users. Raw throughput is a driver. Service Providers like an AT&T and Verizon need them to support LTE rollouts and ... authentication of the device and application are drivers here. And outsourced cloud providers like an Amazon Web Services or Rackspace need them to provide ADC functionality to the businesses they support, with multi-tenancy and throughput being the drivers," he said.

Very large enterprises are also demanding them to cope with high traffic volumes and SSL processing, Quillin said.

Joe Skorupa, an analyst at Gartner, also believes that the 4480 chassis and 4300 blade will find plenty of buyers.

"Service providers, especially those dealing with mobile infrastructure, will be interested in this. Service providers tend to be 'big iron chassis' kind of guys. It's a cultural thing. They want lots of everything, especially SSL capabilities to deal with 2K keys," he said.

One of the key points of the Viprion ADC platform is that it can be scaled up simply by adding blades. As blades are added, the firmware running on the other blades in the chassis is copied to the new blade along with any other settings, and the cores and resources of the new blade are immediately put to work. And once a chassis is full, the ADC system can be scaled out further by grouping further Viprion chassis, other F5 ADC appliances or virtual appliances into a cluster called a device service cluster.F5 Viprion 4480 chasis

The virtual ADC

For service providers (and indeed very large enterprises), F5 offers a virtual clustered multiprocessing (vCMP) hypervisor on the 4480 chassis that allows multiple virtual ADC instances to run on the Viprion platform.

"This allows service providers to isolate and segregate their customers on separate virtual ADCs," said Tam.

Each virtual instance can be given a dedicated allocation of CPU, memory and other resources and service providers can charge for different levels of service accordingly.

Skorupa believes this feature is very appealing to large enterprises that wish to deliver different applications, such as Microsoft SharePoint or Exchange, using separate virtual ADCs.

In fact vCMP, along with a number of other features such as DNSSEC, is not supported on the 4300 blade under the current version of F5's TMOS operating system, but support will be added in a release which will be available "very soon," according to Tam.

The 4480 chassis has been built with redundant parts, and failed blades can be removed and replaced on the fly. Tam said that while some customers will use a single chassis and failover from one blade to another, others will choose a system which fails over from one chassis to another. This is not as costly a precaution as it may sound: the 4480 chassis is available for about $35,000 - relatively little when compared to the 4300 blades themselves, which cost around $130,000 each.

Paul Rubens has been covering IT industry for over 20 years. In that time he has written for leading UK and international publications including The Economist, The Times, Financial Times, the BBC, Computing and ServerWatch.