Category Archives: ADCs

F5′s Look Ahead

I’ve always admired how F5 Networks built its business. Against what seemed heavy odds at the time, F5 took the fight to Cisco Systems and established market leadership in load balancing, which subsequently morphed into market leadership in application delivery controllers (ADC).

F5 now talks about its “Intelligent Services Platform,” which “connects any user, anywhere, from any device to the best application resources, independent of infrastructure.”

To be sure, as various permutations of cloud computing take hold and mobile devices proliferate, the market is shifting, and F5 is attempting to move with it. To get a feel for how F5 sees the world, where it sees things going, and how it intends to meet new challenges, you might want to have a look at a 211-slide (yes, that many) presentation that company executives made to analysts and investors yesterday. 

By its nature, the presentation is mostly high-level stuff, but it offers interesting nuggets on markets, products, technologies, and partnerships.  

Addressing SDN Burnout

In the universe of staccato text bursts that is Twitter, I have diagnosed a recent exhaustion of interest in software defined networking (SDN).

To a certain degree, the burnout is understandable. It is a relatively nascent space, generating more in the way of passionate sound and fury than in commercial substance. Some Twitter denizens with a networking bent have even questioned whether an SDN market — involving buyers as well as sellers — actually exists.

On that score, the pointed skepticism has been refuted. SDN vendors, including Nicira Networks and Big Switch Networks, increasingly are reporting sales and customer traction. What’s more, market-research firms have detected signs of commercial life. International Data Corporation (IDC), for example, has said the SDN market will be worth a modest $50 million this  year,  but that it will grow to $200 million in 2013 and to $2 billion by 2016. MarketsandMarkets estimates that the global SDN market will expand from $198 million in 2012 to $2.10 billion in 2017, representing a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 60.43% during that span.  I’m sure other market measurers will make their projections soon enough.

But just what are they counting? SDN isn’t a specific product category, like a switch; it’s an architectural model. In IDC’s case, the numbers include SDN-specific switching and routing as well as services and software (presumably including controllers and the applications that run on them). MarketsandMarkets is counting  SDN “switching, controllers, cloud virtualization applications, and network virtualization security solutions.”

Still, established networking vendors will argue that the SDN hype is out of proportion with on-the-ground reality. In that respect, they can cite recent numbers from Infonetics Research that estimate global revenue derived from sales of data-center network equipment — the market segment SDN is likely to make most headway during the next several years — was worth $2.2 billion in the first quarter of 2012. Those numbers include sales of Ethernet switches, application delivery controllers (ADCs), and WAN-optimization appliances.

This is where things get difficult and admittedly subjective. If we’re considering where the industry and customers stand today, then there’s no question that SDN gets more attention than it warrants. Most of us, including enterprise IT staff, do not wish to live in the past and don’t have the luxury of looking too far into the future.

That said, some people have the job of looking ahead and trying to figure out how the future will be different from the present. In the context of SDN, those constituencies would include the aforementioned market researchers as well as venture capitalists, strategic planners, and technology visionaries. I would also include in this class industry executives at established and emerging vendors, both those directly involved in networking technologies and those that interact with networking infrastructure in areas such as virtualization and data-center management and orchestration.

For these individuals, SDN is more than a sensationalized will-o’-the-wisp.  It’s coming. The only question is when, and getting that timing right will be tremendously important.

I suppose my point here is that some can afford to be dismissive of SDN, but others definitely cannot and should not. Is interest in SDN overdone? That’s subjective, and therefore it’s your call. I, for one, will continue to pay close attention to developments in a realm that is proving refreshingly dynamic, both technologically and as an emerging market.

Understanding Cisco’s Relationship to SDN Market

Analysts and observers have variously applauded or denounced Cisco for its network-Cisco ONE programmability pronouncements last week.  Some pilloried the company for being tentative in its approach to SDN, contrasting the industry giant’s perceived reticence with its aggressive pursuit of previous emerging technology markets such as IP PBX, videoconferencing, and converged infrastructure (servers).

Conversely, others have lauded Cisco’s approach to SDN as far more aggressive than its lackluster reply to challenges in market segments such as application-delivery controllers (ADCs) and WAN optimization, where F5 and Riverbed, respectively, demonstrated how a tightly focused strategy and expertise above the network layer could pay off against Cisco.

Different This TIme

But I think they’ve missed a very important point about Cisco’s relationship to the emerging SDN market.  Analogies and comparisons should be handled with care. Close inspection reveals that SDN and the applications it enables represent a completely different proposition from the markets mentioned above.

Let’s break this down by examining Cisco’s aggressive pursuit of IP-based voice and video. It’s not a mystery as to why Cisco chose to charge headlong into those markets. They were opportunities for Cisco to pursue its classic market adjacencies in application-related extensions to its hegemony in routing and switching. Cisco also saw video as synergistic with its core network-infrastructure business because it generated bandwidth-intensive traffic that filled up existing pipes and required new, bigger ones.

Meanwhile, Cisco’s move into UCS servers was driven by strategic considerations. Cisco wanted the extra revenue servers provided, but it also wanted to preemptively seize the advantage over its former server partners (HP, Dell, IBM) before they decided to take the fight to Cisco. What’s more, all the aforementioned vendors confronted the challenge of continuing to grow their businesses and public-market stock prices in markets that were maturing and slowing.

Cisco’s reticence to charge into WAN optimization and ADCs also is explicable. Strategically, at the highest echelons within Cisco, the company viewed these markets as attractive, but not as essential extensions to its core business. The difficulty was not only that Cisco didn’t possess the DNA or the acumen to play in higher-layer network services — though that was definitely a problem — but also that Cisco did not perceive those markets as conferring sufficiently compelling rewards or strategic advantages to warrant the focus and resources necessary for market domination. Hence, we have F5 Networks and its ADC market leadership, though certainly F5’s razor-sharp focus and sustained execution factored heavily into the result.

To Be Continued

Now, let’s look at SDN. For Cisco, what sort of market does it represent? Is it an opportunity to extend its IP-based hegemony, like voice, video, and servers? No, not at all. Is it an adjunct market, such as ADCs and WAN optimization, that would be nice to own but isn’t seen as strategically critical or sufficiently large to move the networking giant’s stock-price needle? No, that’s not it, either.

So, what is SDN’s market relationship to Cisco?

Simply put, it is a potential existential threat, which makes it unlike IP PBXes, videoconferencing, compute hardware, ADCs, and WAN optimization. SDN is a different sort of beast, for reasons that have been covered here and elsewhere many times.  Therefore, it necessitates a different sort of response — carefully calculated, precisely measured, and thoroughly plotted. For Cisco, the ONF-sanctioned approach to SDN is not an opportunity that the networking giant can seize,  but an incipient threat to the lifeblood of its business that it must blunt and contain — and, whatever else, keep out of its enterprise redoubt.

Did Cisco achieve its objective? That’s for a subsequent post.

Assessing Dell’s Layer 4-7 Options

As it continues to integrate and assimilate its acquisition of Force10 Networks, Dell is thinking about its next networking move.

Based on what has been said recently by Dario Zamarian, Dell’s GM and SVP of networking, the company definitely will be making that move soon. In an article covering Dell’s transition from box pusher to data-center and cloud contender, Zamarian told Fritz Nelson of InformationWeek that “Dell needs to offer Layer 4 and Layer 7 network services, citing security, load balancing, and overall orchestration as its areas of emphasis.”

Zamarian didn’t say whether the move into Layer 4-7 network services would occur through acquisition, internal development, or partnership. However, as I invoke deductive reasoning that would make Sherlock Holmes green with envy (or not), I think it’s safe to conclude an acquisition is the most likely route.

F5 Connection

Why? Well, Dell already has partnerships that cover Layer 4-7 services. F5 Networks, the leader in the application-delivery controllers (ADCs), is a significant Dell partner in the Layer 4-7 sphere. Dell and F5 have partnered for 10 years, and Dell bills itself as the largest reseller of F5 solutions. If you consider what Zamarian described as Dell’s next networking priority, F5 certainly fits the bill.

There’s one problem. F5 probably isn’t selling at any price Dell would be willing to pay.  As of today, F5 has a market capitalization of more than $8.5 billion. Dell has the cash, about $16 billion and counting, to buy F5 at a premium, but it’s unlikely Dell would be willing to fork over more than $11 billion — which, presuming mutual interest, might be F5’s absolute minimum asking price — to close the deal. Besides, observers have been thinking F5 would be acquired since before the Internet bubble of 2000 burst. It’s not likely to happen this time either.

Dell could see whether one of its other partners, Citrix, is willing to sell its NetScaler business. I’m not sure that’s likely to happen, though. I definitely can’t envision Dell buying Citrix outright. Citrix’s market cap, at more than $13.7 billion, is too high, and there are pieces of the business Dell probably wouldn’t want to own.

Shopping Not Far From Home?

Who else is in the mix? Radware is an F5 competitor that Dell might consider, but I don’t see that happening. Dell’s networking group is based in the Bay Area, and I think they’ll be looking for something closer to home, easier to integrate.

That brings us to F5 rival A10 Networks. Force10 Networks, which Dell now owns, had a partnership with A10, and there’s a possibility Dell might inherit and expand upon that relationship.

Then again, maybe not. Generally, A10 is a seen as purveyor of cost-effective ADCs. It is not typically perceived as an innovator and trailblazer, and it isn’t thought to have the best solutions for complex enterprise or data-center environments, exactly the areas where Dell wants to press its advantage. It’s also worth bearing in mind that A10 has been involved in exchanges of not-so-friendly litigious fire — yes, lawsuits volleyed back and forth furiously — with F5 and others.

All in all, A10 doesn’t seem a perfect fit for Dell’s needs, though the price might be right.

Something Programmable 

Another candidate, one that’s quite intriguing in many respects, is Embrane. The company is bringing programmable network services, delivered on commodity x86 servers, to the upper layers of the stack, addressing many of the areas in which Zamarian expressed interest. Embrane is focusing on virtualized data centers where Dell wants to be a player, but initially its appeal will be with service providers rather than with enterprises.

In an article written by Stacey Higginbotham and published at GigaOM this summer, Embrane CEO Dante Malagrinò explained that his company’s technology would enable hosting companies to provide virtualized services at Layers 4 through 7, including load balancing, firewalls, virtual private networking (VPN),  among others.

Some of you might see similarities between what Embrane is offering and the OpenFlow-enabled software-defined networking (SDN). Indeed, there are similarities, but, as Embrane points out, OpenFlow promises network virtualization and programmability at Layers 2 and 3 of the stack, not at Layers 4 through 7.

Higher-Layer Complement to OpenFlow

Dell, as we know, has talked extensively about the potential of OpenFlow to deliver operational cost savings and innovative services to data centers at service provides and enterprises. One could see what Embrane does as a higher-layer complement to OpenFlow’s network programmability. Both technologies take intelligence away from specialized networking gear and place it at the edge of the network, running in software on industry-standard hardware.

Interestingly, there aren’t many degrees of separation between the principals at Embrane and Dell’s Zamarian. It doesn’t take much sleuthing to learn that Zamarian knows both Malagrinò and Marco Di Benedetto, Embrane’s CTO. They worked together at Cisco Systems. Moreover, Zamarian and Malagrinò both studied at the Politecnico di Torino, though a decade or so apart.  Zamarian also has connections to Embrane board members.

Play an Old Game, Or Define a New One

In and of itself, those don’t mean anything. Dell would have to see value in what Embrane offers, and Embrane and its backers would have to want to sell. The company announced that in August that it had closed an $18-million Series-financing round, led by New Enterprise Associates (NEA). Lightspeed Venture Partners and North Bridge Ventures also took part in the round, which followed initial lead investments in the company’s $9-million Series-A funding.

Embrane’s product has been in beta, but the company planned a commercial launch before the end of this year. Its blog has been quiet since August.

I would be surprised to see Dell acquire F5, and I don’t think Citrix will part with NetScaler. If Dell is thinking about plugging L4-7 holes cost-effectively, it might opt for an acquisition of A10, but, if it’s thinking more ambitiously — if it really is transforming itself into a solutions provider for cloud providers and data centers — then it might reach for something with the potential to establish a new game rather than play at an old one.

F5 Deals with Its Virtual Threat

F5 Networks has done well selling its BIG-IP application delivery controllers (ADCs), the devices formerly known as load balancers. Customers and channel partners clearly have derived a lot of value from F5′s ADCs, too.

It isn’t for nothing, after all, that F5 has established itself as the dominant player in the ADC market. As I have recounted in this space previously, F5 has convincingly and repeatedly repelled attempts by Cisco Systems to dethrone it. Even when it was a the old Cisco, the networking colossus that bestrode the globe, it couldn’t beat F5 at the load-balancing game.

Questions to Answer

Now, though, I have begun to wonder whether the vicissitudes of technological change might do to F5 what Cisco was unable to accomplish. Could the seemingly endless push in data centers for increased virtualization, with its attendant cost savings, cut into F5′s ADC cash cow? Could virtualized ADCs (vADCs), sold at lower prices than purpose-built hardware-appliance ADCs, eat into F5′s top and bottom lines?  To what extent are these vADCs capable of doing the work that physical ADC (pADC) appliances perform today?

F5 has been pondering the same questions, and it has provided some answers in a column written for Enterprise Systems by Alan Murphy, a senior technical marketing manager. To summarize, Murphy acknowledges that vADCs have been considered replacements for pADCs in the data center, but he advises strongly against their adoption. That’s obviously the sort of advice one would expect from F5 — and I’m sure proponents of vADCs will contend that there’s a self-serving element to F5′s guidance — but there’s also plausibility to the points F5 raises.

Fundamentally, F5 argues that pADCs are superior to vADCs in mission-critical scenarios involving application security, optimization, and availability at the data-center edge. According to F5, pADCs’ purpose-built hardware is optimized to perform “application delivery, SSL acceleration, and compression.” In contrast, vADCs, which run on industry-standard hardware and often share computing resources, can’t scale application traffic or perform to the same degree.

More — or the Same — for Less

F5 does concede that vADCs are appropriate for some applications. Their portability, affordability, and ease of deployment make them good candidates, for instance, for application-development environments, where costs and logistics preclude deployment of pADCs. While that might seem like a minor concession to the vADC camp, F5 allows that virtualized load balancers also have their uses alongside application-specific services and virtualized workloads such as SharePoint.

In the end, F5 envisions the coexistence of pADCs and vADCs. In the near term, as F5 contends, it’s likely true that pADCs will retain their grip on mission-critical data-center applications.

Looking further ahead, however, it’s harder to say how markets and technologies will evolve. As today’s tumult on the public markets suggests, IT cost cutting could be the one unvarying constant that drives ongoing change in this industry. In that vein, we should watch not only the progress of virtualized load balancers, but also, on a higher level, the virtualization of network infrastructure represented by software-defined networking and protocols such as OpenFlow.

There’s no question that managers of data centers at enterprises and cloud service providers will be on an endless quest to slash capex and opex. If technologies can do more — or even the same — for less, they figure to find patronage.