F5's Big Play With Big-IP Is VDI Support

F5 Networks executives are fond of referring to their company as the "Swiss Army Knife of the data center" and over the past two years have set about convincing solution providers and customers that F5 goes above and beyond the application delivery controller market it so decisively controls.

That "above and beyond" includes recent aggressive marketing of its security strategy and its brand-new virtual desktop infrastructure push. F5 is pitching its Big-IP application delivery products as ideally suited for supporting VDI, a market opportunity research firm Gartner sees as reaching $65.7 billion in 2013, up from about $1.5 billion three years ago.

F5 earlier this week said it now supports Citrix XenDesktop, VMware View, Microsoft Virtual Desktop and other VDI platforms. Specifically, F5's Big-IP Local Traffic Manager, Global Traffic Manager, Access Policy Manager and Edge Gateway products now include that VDI support as part of version 11.1 of the Big-IP operating system, TMOS. Customers don't need any additional licensing to access VDI support features.

"We look at VDI as just another application that needs to be delivered: first, to be available and, second, to be delivered quickly and securely. That's our mind-set here," said Peter Silva, technical marketing manager at F5, in a recent conversation with CRN.

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Maximizing performance of VDI often requires a number of costly add-ons and software updates but, according to Silva, Big-IP products don't require any changes to the delivery infrastructure to complement VDI deployments. In other words, a customer's VDI support problems are solved as part of their investment in Big-IP.

The Big-IP lineup can reduce server load, optimize TCP connections and manage both local and global traffic, as well as provide functions such as Quality of Service to boost performance of VoIP and other forms of traffic with high potential for latency. IT managers also can use Big-IP to apply unified access and policies across all types of devices and potential users, enabling more secure VDI with better control over traffic, according to F5.

Further, Big-IP products include native iApps templates for VMware View and Citrix XenDesktop, enabling quicker management, provisioning and deployment of applications and services in a network. That speed, said F5, ultimately means reduced operating expenses for managing network assets.

Supplies Network, a $600 million wholesale distributor of imaging and computer supplies, uses the Big-IP Edge Gateway to manage its remote workers' VDI use. Dan Shipley, IT architect at the St. Charles, Mo., distributor, said he first learned about F5's potentially strong VDI support play when the company was evaluating F5 for a potential WAN acceleration deal nearly two years ago.

F5 ultimately did not win that deal -- it went to Cisco, whose Wide Area Application Services were more in the distributor's price range. But following an introduction to F5's portfolio by Supplies Network's solution provider partner, VAR500 integrator SHI International, Shipley's team and F5's team got to talking about an upcoming VDI project.

NEXT: F5 Tackles The Technical Challenges

"One thing we wanted to do was remote access with virtual desktops," said Shipley. "Most people who had wanted to connect would do it to a terminal server and get a generic desktop. It was pretty clunky."

Successfully migrating to VDI meant a number of technical challenges, he said, from addressing single sign-on access to addressing employees using the company LAN or Wi-Fi to access the network from home or from a public Wi-Fi network.

"All of that absolutely wreaked havoc with our VPN client," Shipley said.

About 90 percent of Supplies Network's remote employees use VDI, with the remaining employees still connecting into the company's terminal server. Shipley said that on average the company sees about 30 concurrent VDI sessions but that number frequently spikes, particularly on inclement weather days when more than half of the company's 300 employees can be expected to connect remotely.

Supplies Network ultimately purchased two Big-IP Edge Gateways.

The Edge Gateway solved a lot of potential VDI performance problems "gracefully," Shipley said, such as the way it holds application connections open if a user moves between connections and maintains that hold while preventing shutdown or application failure. Shipley said Supplies Network also uses Big-IP's QoS rules capability to handle bandwidth issues with remote workers using the company's VoIP system and softphone clients.

"End users like to have this simple and easy and real fast from a client perspective," he said. "What they expect today is anytime, anywhere access to whatever device they want, so the enterprise has to make sure that can be done in a secure fashion in a way that's simple. A lot of people don't understand just how complex it is to do all that because they just expect it. If you don't give it to them, they won't use it and they definitely won't like it."

Shipley said F5's hook is its consolidated approach: Big-IP boxes can tackle some of the biggest challenges in the data center without having to add other point products.

"No one has all of these features rolled into a single box, or even multiple boxes," he said. "We just couldn't find anything that pulled it all together like F5 does."