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F5 Networks answers a complex SDN question

With the recently released Synthesis, F5 Networks attempts to answer a complex question in the age of software-defined networks - what role will application delivery controllers play?

One of the primary value propositions of Software Defined Networks (SDNs) is that it optimizes the performance of the applications that run on networks today. However, almost all of the SDN-related products that have been released to date operate at layer 2/3 which, of course, have no direct relevance to applications. I agree that if there’s congestion or something else impacting performance at those lower layers, applications themselves will be impacted, but for the most part, the world of applications and networks have been managed in independent silos.

To help bridge this gap between applications and networks, many network managers, data center folks and even some application developers have turned to application delivery controllers (ADCs). The ADC speaks both the language of networks and applications and can be thought of as the “Rosetta stone” of IT, and plays a key role in enterprises’ ability to roll out applications rapidly and keep them performing optimally.

However, SDNs have recently turned the networking world upside down. Things that were physical are now software-based and virtual. Networking has a level of dynamism that has never been seen before. This trend has raised the question of what the role of the ADC is in this new virtual, software-driven world.

This week, ADC market leader F5 answered that question with its Synthesis release. Synthesis virtualizes ADC functions and brings “software-defined application services” (SDAS) to the data center. The easiest way to think about Synthesis is to consider it a layer 4-7 overlay fabric that sits on top of the software-defined network fabric. Synthesis makes the ADC services virtual, share-able resources that can be accessed effectively from an ADC pool. This allows IT managers to direct the Big IP-based services to whatever applications may require it, when they require it. One could do this through software, but that could become prohibitively expensive as the environment scales and as more ADC resources are required.

SDAS can be implemented using almost any F5 product running the TMOS operating system. All the F5 devices get pooled together and then that larger pool gets carved up into smaller virtual resources – up to 2,560 instances. F5 has had the ability to do this in a limited manger through the company’s ScaleN architecture, but Synthesis can do this “pooling” and “virtualizing” on the largest of scales.

This is a nice vision, but how to do this may not be obvious to most IT managers. After all, how many have even attempted to pool any kind of resources other than many compute or storage? To help with this, F5 unveiled a number of prescriptive references architectures. These “F5 recipes,” if you will, ensure that resources are aligned properly with business goals, the services are secure, and that licenses are optimized, all of which helps customers get Synthesis deployed without letting costs get out of control. At launch, the company released 11 of these architectures, including cloud bursting, DNS and security.

Is this the missing piece that can take SDNs from vision to reality? Probably not, but having ADC resources available as virtual services should make it significantly easier to optimize the performance of applications running in a “software-driven” data center. Now that the network and application tiers have become virtual, the “stuff” that ties it together also needs to be virtual. This should be the first in a number of industry announcements we see addressing this issue.

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