F5 Networks: Security, Cloud, Partner Enablement All In Focus

F5 Networks has for a few years now been positioning itself as the "Swiss army knife of the data center," and based on how quickly it's expanding, it's safe to say F5, which crossed the $1 billion revenue threshold during its fiscal 2011, has transcended its roots as load balancer company and become one of the channel's most formidable vendors.

The 800-or-so partner attendees expected at F5's Agility partner conference in New York this week represent a spike in attendance from the more than the 500 who attended the Chicago installment last summer. What will await them is a continued discussion of F5's strategic priorities as well as more programs intended to make them more competitive and bring the F5 application delivery networking story to problem solving across the data center, from infrastructure to application optimization.

The biggest difference between the F5 of now versus a year ago is a stepped-up emphasis on security, an area in which it's aggressively marketing behind the idea that its application delivery networking and network data management tools are better equipped than traditional firewall vendors' products against cyberattacks targeting specific applications.

[Related: F5 Networks CEO Seeing Big Traction In Security ]

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The security elements in F5's BIG-IP ADN portfolio, including its Application Security Manager, are some of its fastest-growing lines, according to F5 CEO John McAdam. In an interview with CRN, McAdam said the ASM and F5's Access Policy Manager (APM) drove the record high attach rate on its BIG-IP platform last quarter, and that F5 has also seen "major sales" of data center firewalls.

McAdam said F5 was at work on a security product called Topaz, an update to its TMOS software platform that's expected later this year.

"It's a fully loaded data center Layer 3-7 firewall, and by that we mean a traditional firewall that also has the application side integrated with it as well, and the best performance as well," he said. "I wish we had the product tomorrow. It's on our next TMOS release and it's on the roadmap for the end of this year."

The company has yoked that security momentum in the channel. Earlier this year, F5 rolled out Vault, a new element of its global Unity channel program that rewards F5 solution providers focused on security solutions. Nearly half of F5's reseller base have a security practice of some kind, and many of its top partners, including names like FishNet, Nexum and Trace 3, are also well-known security solution providers.

"What's important to note is that the security discussion doesn't require a whole other set of skills for them to be a part of," Dean Darwin, F5's senior vice president, worldwide partner organization, told CRN. "Layer 4-7 is the nature of the attacks that are happening, and that's a firm differentiation from what Palo Alto Networks, Cisco, Juniper and others offer."

Security isn't F5's only emerging focus, however. Among F5's recently debuted programs was not only Vault but also Cohesion, a program that lets F5 solution providers make a two-year recurring commission for their role brokering deals between F5 and infrastructure-as-a-service providers working with F5's Cloud Licensing Program.

Still to come -- and expected to be announced during Agility -- is yet another program called Guardian, in which partners will be able to bring in F5 staff experts to do everything from help consult to augment their professional services teams.

"We don't want consulting to be our core business, that's for the partners," Darwin said. "We don't want to take consulting business away, but we will be able to provide people and in some cases even act as [sub-contractors] to our partners."

Darwin disagrees that pre-integrated, vendor-approved product combinations such as Vblock -- which is sold through the channel via the Cisco-EMC joint venture company VCE and combines elements of Cisco, EMC and VMware portfolios into a tightly integrated stack -- are helping partners be more profitable.

F5, he said, will keep its focus on programs that leave solution integration work to the partners themselves. F5's goal, Darwin explained, is to help partners build practices around ADN that make them versatile in the data center with ongoing upsell potential based on customers' changing needs.

"We're fans of open architectures and letting the channel be the integrator," he said. "Every customer situation is going to be different. We give you things like [F5's customizable control language] iRules and you can open up the interfaces and make it work for them. It's not 'put this in and don't touch it.' Last I checked, data centers are very fluid."

NEXT: F5 Distribution Goes Global

The other big piece of F5 news emerging from Agility this week is that F5 will for the first time have a global distributor.

Tarrytown, N.Y.-based Westcon Group, which was already partnered with F5 on a regional basis in the Americas, EMEA and parts of Asia Pacific, will now offer the F5 portfolio across the world, and work with F5 on global programs for solution providers, MSPs and cloud services providers equipped to do multi-national customer engagements.

"Our worldwide support infrastructure was created to nurture service provider business relationships," said Patty Gray, Westcon's vice president of global technology strategies. "It's a natural evolution to broaden these services and apply them to a global channel approach working alongside F5 -- which is a true value-differentiator for both partners and customers."

Gray said one of Westcon's advantages is that it can take a single global purchase order and ship it to multiple countries while providing in-country invoicing, currency exchange, standard reporting and global logistics. Westcon is installing a global vendor manager, reporting to Gray, who will spearhead what Gray called a "new governance framework to manage the relationship."

F5 has about 70 distributors worldwide, each focused on a particular region. It will be looking to grow partners that can sell multi-national, but F5's Darwin said it will also continue protect regionally-focused partners through deal registration to minimize channel conflict.

"Under Unity, we make our partners choose their distribution and we're 100 percent deal-reg," he said. "We are not at all going to let everyone go out and work in other partners' channels just because they can do multi-national. Half of our channel gets invalid in some form of multi-national engagement anyway, but because we know which partners source from where, we can make smart decisions so no one takes anyone else's business unfairly."

"Westcon has the ability to report both locally and globally -- all sales with all vendors," added Gray. "In addition, F5 has a global registration program that protects partners for the upfront work provided. The combination of the two will ensure that partners who do the work will be rewarded for their efforts."

F5 partners should expect a continuing emphasis on training and certification, Darwin said, and F5 will continue to absorb the cost so partners don't have to pay for it. Darwin said that's one of the things that sets F5 apart from other major vendors.

"Some of them control their partners by the cost of entry. It's, 'Hey, you can sell cloud, but you need these 16 certifications to do it,' " Darwin said. "What that gets you is that small partners say, 'I can't afford that,' and the big partners grumble. So we don't have that methodology."