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F5 Networks gunning for even more data center control

F5 CEO McAdam on battling Cisco, becoming arms dealer for public cloud

By , Network World
February 10, 2011 02:41 PM ET
John McAdam

Network World - Cisco owns networking, right? Not when it comes to the rapidly growing Layer 4-7 switching market. There, F5 Networks has managed to garner nearly 50% market share, while Cisco's share has actually declined. John McAdam, F5's CEO, attributes the company's success to having won ownership of certain strategic control points in today's consolidated data centers. In this installment of the IDG Enterprise CEO Interview Series, McAdam talked with IDGE Chief Content Officer John Gallant about F5's efforts to make infrastructure more agile, how the company is helping IT leaders navigate the move to cloud computing, new security and mobility challenges facing enterprises and why his Seattle-based company so often beats Cisco when customers choose an application switching partner.

(Read more from the IDG Enterprise CEO Interview Series, including Q&As with Cisco CEO John Chambers, Riverbed CEO Jerry Kennelly and SAS CEO Jim Goodnight.)

F5 is described as an application delivery vendor, but that term is nebulous to some folks and it doesn't really convey all of the things that you do. You cover everything from application acceleration, wide-area network (WAN) optimization, security, policy and more. Can you crystallize F5's mission and what sets it apart from other infrastructure companies?

We see our products as occupying the strategic control points within data centers. We see all the traffic that's going between applications and between servers. Because of these strategic control points, we can do simple things like, historically, load balancing or encrypting the traffic. But then it gets much more sophisticated where we can basically provision applications and servers, we can look at the performance of specific applications. Our customers can use our products to change or add functionality without having to change thousands of pieces of software and different programs. We've got this opportunity because of the way data centers have been architected and are being architected, which is this whole concept of consolidated data centers, typically using virtualization technology without a product sitting in a data center effectively controlling traffic between the apps and between the servers and between the network.

Talk about those control points. Did you identify them as an opportunity early on or is this a position in the infrastructure that you evolved to support?

We started off with load balancing then we added encryption. In 2004, we came out with full proxy architecture. The reason that's important is that we can actually sit at the strategic control point and the application isn't aware that we're there, the user isn't aware. That gets you a lot of power. Also, we can be very application fluent. We can understand what's happening at a pretty granular level within the applications, whether it's Microsoft SharePoint or Oracle apps. Over the last few years we've been building more application fluency into the product. Three years ago if you were using our products, you may have had to deal with a whitepaper that would say, 'OK if you're running SharePoint, this is what you do to improve the performance of SharePoint'. You read the whitepaper, you made some changes to our software. Now we have application templates for specific types of solutions, and we've got a significant number of those actually. These templates [are supported] within the operating system and you tweak the parameters to optimize [the applications], to make them more secure, to make them go faster.

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