F5 Networks Looks Ahead To VAR Certification

The top executives at F5 Networks are fond of calling the company the "Swiss Army knife" of the data center, thanks to how its application delivery networking (ADN) products offer everything from application management to WAN optimization to application security to business intelligence and analytics, and work well in a range of vendor environments.

That flexibility, the company says, makes F5 channel partners ripe for the type of certification program that will brand them as high-value, high-touch consultants that can prepare enterprise customers for virtualization and the cloud with ADN as a focus technology.

Such a program, whose promise F5 has been touting for a while now, will finally come to fruition in the next two years, hot on the heels of F5's well-received sales and technical accreditation program, launched in January.

The reason for a certification overhaul, said Dean Darwin, F5's vice president, worldwide channels, is that F5's partner community has grown behind security partners, infrastructure partners and networking partners, but the paradigm shifts seen with virtualization and cloud are making it less easier to define which partners fit in which technology buckets.

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"You've got all these market dynamics happening at the same time, so you either try to take each one of them and do it that way, or try to bring something of value to the channel, once," Darwin told CRN Wednesday at F5's Agility partner conference in Chicago.

F5's accreditation programs, he said, are modular, meaning that a security VAR can download the security training modules it cares about but can access modules to technology adjacencies F5 plays in if it so chooses.

"Enough size so it's not just a two-hour thing and we're done," Darwin said.

VARs, said Darwin and Steve McChesney, vice president, channel sales, Americas, need to think about their sales not as technology buckets but as business cases, because F5 technology can -- and should -- fit all over the data center.

"It's, 'Here's where a customer has an issue, here's how it was solved,'" Darwin explained.

F5 has had a certification program before, but the new program will use third party organizations for testing and will formalize the certification process more strictly than in the past. Through the program, F5 will look to create F5 security engineers, core engineers and optimization engineers addressing a range of different F5 competencies. The idea of an F5 Master Architect, Darwin said, will come to the fore.

As with the accreditation program, F5 won't charge partners for certification, meaning partners won't pay anything beyond the cost paid to the third-party testing organization.

That means millions that F5 puts into partner certification programs out of its own pocket. But it's money well-spent, Darwin said.

"The resources have been identified, the model's been built and the budgets have been approved," Darwin said. "There are several seven-figure numbers in that budget, and it's in development. I'm bullish."

Why not charge partners?

"If I can do something that adds to partner competency without taking away profitability, that's big," he said.

Judith Buckardt, president and CEO of Konsultek, an Elgin, Ill.-based solution provider and longtime F5 partner, said several members of her team had gone through F5's accreditation programs, and that the certification idea also held a lot of promise.

"They always had the technical piece and the engineering piece, but not the sales piece," she said of the accreditations. "I think it's great they have sales training like that, it's something that puts them above manufacturers who have sales training but is mostly just someone coming in and sitting down and talking."

Next: The Need For F5-Led Consulting

The ADN space needs more certified technical talent, F5 contends, and analyst research backs up the vendor's claims.

In an earlier presentation at Agility, Mark Fabbi, Gartner vice president and distinguished analyst, said that most CIO's top priorities align well with all of application delivery networking's stated benefits.

According to Gartner, enterprise CIOs rank cloud as their top technology priority, followed by virtualization and mobile, whereas as recently as 2009, the top priority was business intelligence. In terms of company priorities, enterprise growth is CIO's top priority, followed by attracting and retaining new customers and reducing enterprise costs.

"Every aspect of CIO priorities has a tie into application delivery," Fabbi told F5 partners and customers.

Fabbi credited F5 for wanting to build a high-value certification program because a lack of technical know-how around application delivery networking is holding the market's growth back.

"Despite significant growth on how successful F5 has been and how successful this market has been, I don't think this market has grown anywhere near as fast as it could," Fabbi said. "The more I think about this problem, I think it comes down to a skill shortage."

Both Fabbi and F5 executives -- some of whom, like Darwin, were at Cisco during the nascent days of Cisco's top certification programs -- likened the idea to what Cisco did with its Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) professional certification.

Not only did the CCIE badge become influential in the industry, Fabbi said, but it also focused engineers on solving networking industry problems more quickly.

The industry dynamics are rapidly changing, Fabbi said. Customers are now focused on logical building blocks in the data center -- a role vendors like F5 play well -- as opposed to broad spending on network infrastructure with a single vendor.

"The days of monolithic network spend and people not paying attention to what they were spending and why and who they were buying from are absolutely over," Fabbi said.

Karl Triebes, F5's CTO and senior vice president, product development, said the strength of future data center architecture lies in how applications are optimized, managed and secured, not necessarily how the network itself is used -- a marked difference between F5's philosophy and that of chief rival Cisco, and the motivation behind F5's key product releases, including a crucial recent update to its BIG-IP application delivery platform.

"You have to look at the application infrastructure and find a strategy for matching it to the network," Triebes told CRN. "The network needs to be fast, cheap and provide connectivity. But the applications are where the paradigm [shift] is. Network connectivity doesn't need to be that complex."

VARs agree that F5, which has grown between 30 and 40 percent year-over-year for the last several years, and which CEO John McAdam confirmed will cross the $1 billion revenue mark in its fiscal 2011, has become a channel powerhouse.

Konsultek's F5 sales are up 30 percent this year over last, said Buckardt, and the scalability an F5-led implementation promises is "exactly what people want to hear."

"It's definitely relevant and definitely resonates with customers," Buckardt said. "Not everyone starts in with F5 at the same level. Some have the LTM [Big-IP Local Traffic Manager], or the GTM [Global Traffic Manager] or the SSL-VPN. Once they see everything else they have, they want more, and that's something that touches the networking team, touches the security team, and goes everywhere."