F5 CTO: We're working hard on the transition to software

SDN, cloud prompt major shift in technology directions for ADC manufacturer.

F5 Networks is a veteran player in the network management market, having sold its load balancing hardware - or application delivery controllers, as it prefers to call them - to large numbers of data center customers.

One might think that the rapid shift toward software-defined networking, then, would spell trouble for a company like F5. But CTO Karl Triebes, speaking to Network World at F5's Agility event in New York on Tuesday, said that F5 is working hard on a shift of its own.

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"Our hardware we do invest in, but nine-tenths of every dollar I spend on engineering goes straight towards software," he said. "The reason we do that, is that's where the value is. The hardware's there, it's unique and it can do some unique things, but we want to make sure that we're working for both worlds."

The idea is two-fold - first, to make F5's application delivery capabilities available in a virtualized format, and second, to broaden the range of services offered, to include more advanced security and orchestration capabilities.

That means making moves that most specialist hardware vendors wouldn't generally consider.

"We have to embrace change. We're actually working towards supporting commodity hardware in certain scenarios on our road map," he said.

Triebes did note that the company isn't abandoning its traditional strengths, however.

"Our view is that hardware's not going to go away anytime soon … people need to run their own data centers, they need to buy hardware that makes it easier."

But because of this cover-your-bases approach, Triebes said that the unsettled future of SDN doesn't bother F5 - which, he asserted, sits above the fray. As hard as Cisco and VMware battle over what tomorrow's network will look like, the outcome won't much matter to F5.

"[W]e don't care if it's traditional, or if it's ACI-enabled, or if it's VMware's NSX - we don't care what's running the underlying network, because we can plug into it regardless," he said.

That's not to say that this broad flexibility doesn't come at a price. A large part of that flexibility stems from the fact that F5 uses a unique programming language, called iRules, to customize the way its products work.

Like any powerful tool, Triebes said, iRules requires careful use and attention to detail.

"Basically, you give a customer a big weapon, they can shoot themselves with it," he said. "Giving them a programming language is definitely a big gun."

But the SDN-based future doesn't seem to have F5 worried. According to Triebes, the company's objectives are clear.

"We want to make sure that … applications are managed regardless of where they're running from or where they're being consumed."

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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