F5: Security Stars Are Aligned

It wasn’t all that long ago that F5 Networks was “the load-balancer company,” a niche-based supplier of load-balancing technologies for enterprise customers looking to get more performance out of their data centers.

But a funny thing happened as F5 began to grow in the early 2000s: Load balancers gave way to application delivery technologies and F5 not only grew its position in that niche market, it flat-out crushed the field. By most analyst estimates, it is the runaway dominant player in application delivery controller (ADC) technology and controls about half the market share for Layer 4-7 switching, having long since eclipsed Cisco, Citrix, Radware and a number of other ADC competitors.

And the timing was perfect: The market for application delivery -- catalyzed by the industrywide embrace of data center optimization and virtualization, and interest in cloud computing technologies -- transitioned out of niche status and became a full-fledged focus area for some of the country’s most powerful solution providers, almost all of which, in the security, infrastructure and data center spaces, F5 now counts as partners.

The proof is in the numbers: F5 crossed the $1 billion mark for revenue as it exited its fiscal 2011 in September and finally has a seat at the channel vendor big kids’ table. Now, F5 is charting an ambitious course to link its data center solutions to solving major security and infrastructure problems and position itself as a security vendor in the process.

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The groundwork for that image transformation was laid a while ago, but F5’s recent activities kicked it into high gear. F5 in late October pried away Manny Rivelo, a 19-year Cisco veteran, to be its senior vice president, security and strategic solutions. It’s a newly created role at F5 and Rivelo, who reports directly to F5 CEO John McAdam, is responsible for driving F5’s deeper push into security and other technology areas that complement its application delivery dominance.

“We see adjacent market drivers that will augment the ADC market, which we think is going to grow anyway,” McAdam told CRN. “I think the key is going to be that we have a focus and an executive team focused specifically on this market.”

The security focus has been top of mind at F5 for some time. McAdam said F5 created an internal “tiger team” early in 2011 to examine how F5’s various business units and data center functions could best align with its security ambitions. Specifically, the team looked at how to market F5, which already partners with some of the country’s biggest and best-known security-focused VARs and integrators, as a security vendor.

NEXT: The Application Era

F5’s contention is that in the era of applications -- using them, optimizing them, and making them as user-friendly and business-productive as possible, in other words -- cyberattacks will become more sophisticated and will more often target specific applications. McAdam says F5’s customers have steadily adopted products such as its Application Security Manager, which is part of its flagship Big-IP application delivery networking portfolio, and its Access Policy Manager for remote application access.

Security has been a focal point in several recent F5 product updates as well. The summer 2011 release, version 11, of TMOS, F5’s software architecture, had a range of security updates. And as of this month, F5’s Big-IP product family had been certified by ISCA Labs as a network firewall -- a hugely important step toward establishing Big-IP, and F5, as a legitimate security competitor.

The company will spend 2012 playing offense against a number of competitors that didn’t think they’d have to compete for security business with a “load-balancer company.” F5 in recent months began to formally market its Big-IP family as defending against more than 30 types of network and application-layer DDoS attacks, and as a firewall solution that offers more firepower and flexibility than competitive offerings.

“There are pretty sophisticated attacks aimed at Web sites and Fortune 500 companies that are bringing traditional firewalls down,” McAdam said. “When you’re talking about Internet-based applications open to denial-of-service attacks, it’s really about whether the performance of application delivery controllers can cope with that. We’ve internally identified the firewall space as a place we can go.”

Dean Darwin, F5’s vice president, worldwide channels, notes that F5 has more than 2,500 global solution provider partners, about 500 of which have significant security practices. F5 can not only build that existing footprint but also help the other 2,000 partners that are focused on ADC shape a security conversation with their data center customers.

“It’s a more profitable discussion for the partner,” Darwin said. “They need a differentiating technology, and you can take the TMOS you’ve lived and breathed for a while into an enterprise and say, ‘I can solve your traditional firewall problems by doing this.’ ”

NEXT: Security Always In F5's Sights

According to partners, F5 has been discussing its security ambitions with the channel for years. That it would compete with the incumbent firewall vendors was inevitable, solution providers said, adding that F5 is well equipped to do the job based on how comfortably its value proposition ties a security conversation to a data center and infrastructure conversation.

“There are so many people playing in that next-generation firewall space, and being that it’s sort of a newer area of a huge market, it’s natural that people have their hats in the ring,” said Helen Lesser, executive vice president at Nexum, a Chicago-based solution provider. “At Nexum, it’s a matter of doing what’s best for your customers. There are F5 solutions that are a better fit for some than for others.”

“For us, it’s a fundamental approach,” said Mike Bossert, executive vice president of sales and marketing at FishNet Security, an Overland Park, Kan.-based solution provider. “The investment on the security side has aligned with the focus that we have because our business is starting to change and our infrastructure focus is starting to expand. F5 is a market leader and its offer is stable, scalable and security-minded.”

Tony Balistrieri, vice president of partner strategy at FusionStorm, a San Francisco-based solution provider, said F5’s products are relevant to each of FusionStorm’s major growth areas for data center sales -- confirming F5’s popular depiction of itself as “the Swiss Army Knife of the data center.”

“If you look at the growth of storage, at the changes in the computing platform with virtualization, and the growth around converged infrastructure environments, F5 is a major part of how we’re moving all these applications around,” Balistrieri said.

Global integrator Dimension Data, which was acquired by Nippon Telegraph and Telephone In 2010, is a recently recruited F5 partner-- quite a statement considering its position as one of Cisco’s largest global solution provider partners. The company has seen success taking F5 products into its existing customer base, said Dan Moseley, vice president, sales, Dimension Data America.

“Some clients like best-of-breed, depending on what they’re looking for,” Moseley said. “There are applications we can apply this to. ... It’s a services-led, consultative approach where you can get them talking about business needs, and F5 fits well there.”