F5 Ups the Ante on Web Acceleration

Will F5's bid to bring together WAN acceleration and AFE functionality catch on in enterprises, or will the new device's Web-traffic focus stifle demand?

July 26, 2007

4 Min Read
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There's an uneasy truth about deploying rich applications over a WAN: Whether browser- or fat-client-based, performance usually stinks. Nevertheless, server centralization and the requirement to supply employees with the data and applications they need leave IT shops scrambling for ways to boost application performance to acceptable levels.

For enterprise applications, the solution has been to deploy WAN acceleration appliances in a symmetrical fashion—one system in the central office and similar, smaller devices in remote offices. Vendors here include Blue Coat Systems, Cisco Systems, Citrix Systems, Riverbed Technology and Silver Peak Systems. For external-facing applications, single-sided AFEs (application front ends) have been the solution of choice, with F5 Networks and Citrix being top market contenders.

F5 is looking to unite both camps with the July 30 release of a significant upgrade to its WebAccelerator.

The new product will add symmetrical processing functionality to F5's BIG-IP AFE appliances in hopes of enticing IT architects with a one-vendor system for both internal- and external-facing applications. However—at least in its current incarnation—that will be a tough sell. Where products from the competition started out accelerating Microsoft CIFS traffic and have since evolved to handle all TCP/IP throughput, F5 is currently concentrating solely on Web traffic, a capability that came to the company via its 2005 acquisition of Swan Labs. Those with broader needs are out of luck until F5 adds the capability to handle other traffic—something it certainly will do eventually.

Still, competitors shouldn't rest on their momentary advantage—F5 has a history of being a little late to market, but when it arrives its products are well conceived and engineered. Consider its transition from server and global load balancing to full AFE capabilities: It trailed rivals as it created its TMOS operating system, yet today it's the dominant player in that market.Still Under Construction
While F5 has ported WebAccelerator to run on TMOS, integration with other F5 services is a work in progress. WebAccelerator is managed from the BIG-IP LTM (local traffic management) console and has its own policy management system as part of the management GUI, says Joe Hicks, a product manager at F5. Hicks says that WebAccelerator can run concurrently with all BIG-IP modules, with the exception of F5's Application Security Manager, though he adds that these can work together.

F5's competitors are also struggling to achieve integration. Citrix, for instance, sees room for a united platform but says it believes that a common management interface is most important at this time, and so has concentrated its energies there.

Despite big vendor plans, it remains to be seen just what the enterprise market is seeking in terms of a combined AFE and WAN accelerator—or if it's looking for anything at all. Juniper Networks, Citrix and Cisco also went on shopping sprees in 2005 and 2006, with Juniper picking up Peribit Networks and Redline Networks, Citrix buying Orbital Data Corp. and NetScaler, and Cisco acquiring FineGround Networks on top of its earlier ArrowPoint Communications purchase. In each of these cases, WAN acceleration and AFE remain separate functions on separate platforms.

Furthermore, in most enterprises, the decision to implement these products is driven by different groups. The networking team is likely to feel the pain that leads to buying a WAN accelerator, while the application group, or even line of business, is more apt to drive the purchase of an AFE. This reality alone may obviate the single-platform advantage F5 is banking on.

Still, F5 has a good value proposition for those creating Web-services-based applications with components that will be used both inside the company and by business partners. It has had extensive experience with applications from the likes of Oracle, Microsoft Corp., IBM and others, and can apply its knowledge in asymmetrical acceleration to the symmetrical problem. As Ajax continues to gain in popularity, there's a significant opportunity to manage its "chatty" nature.Perhaps the most interesting application, however, is for enterprises with extensive worldwide networks of offices that now use services, such as Akamai's content delivery network, to speed performance for content-heavy static Web pages. The new F5 system can itself form a CDN by caching content throughout the enterprise network and redirecting Web traffic to the best cache site.

F5 currently envisions the new WebAccelerator product as primarily being used in larger regional offices, and it's set pricing accordingly. While current WebAccelerator customers will get the new version gratis, new customers with existing BIG-IP appliances will pay $15,000 per site for the software, $40,000 for software and hardware.

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