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.

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