Jim Frey contributed to this blog post.

On Wednesday, August 6, 2014, F5 Networks held an analyst summit at the company’s tech center in NYC. It was a great opportunity to catch up and see what was new and where the company is headed. The company appears to be enjoying a bit of a renaissance, looking to redefine its role in the data center as virtualization makes headway into the network domain under the banner of SDN. While true production SDN remains in its infancy, with no single approach emerging to solve all the ills of the network world, there is no debating that programmability will be a very disruptive set of technologies that will change how we build and deploy our networks.

One of the biggest questions is how this shift will impact not just networking equipment but also adjacent technologies such as load balancers and firewalls. While the initial media blitz around SDN would have us believe that everything was going to be fixed and all performance woes would be a thing the past, the reality is much different. Although server virtualization has been widely accepted, it has not eliminated our need for server hardware and it has generated problems of its own. Server virtualization adds a level of abstraction that reduces visibility and creates major headaches when it comes to troubleshooting performance issues. Any kind of network virtualization promises more of the same, but worse. There are so many competing technologies right now implemented at different points in the network that it would make any sane person run screaming in the opposite direction.

Taming the SDN Chaos…?

To date, most SDN approaches only tackle one piece of the network programmability puzzle—the switches—and focus on connectivity rather than application delivery. Also, one of the essential promises of SDN is better control over all dimensions of policy. This is not where most SDN focus has been, but EMA recognized early on that perhaps the greatest long-term value of network programmability is to set and universally enforce a range of policies—from connectivity to delivery quality to secure access and more. Most SDN stories are leaving that policy control to “SDN Apps” to be written by little-defined “developers” at some point in the future.  (Perhaps the one exception here is HP, which has released an SDN app that specifically addresses security policy.)

But what is really needed is a more comprehensive approach to policy management and enforcement. Enter F5, with its unique and critical role already being played for the purposes of optimizing application performance over the network. F5 is seeking to use its unique position in the data center to convert its ADC platform into an application and policy orchestration engine. Such an engine would act as the glue, or (for those over 40) the “middleware,” to connect SDN technologies to a set of managed policies enforced and centrally managed from a single orchestration platform.

APIs and Programmability—Part of the F5 DNA

If there is one lesson that EMA has learned in talking with countless numbers of network practitioners, it is that no two environments are alike. For this reason, it is not uncommon to see upwards of ten different tools in use to monitor and manage the performance of the network. F5 has long recognized the diverse needs of its users and the necessity of being able to adapt its solutions to the specific unique needs of each. For this reason, F5 has developed a whole ecosystem of features and interfaces (iRules, iControl, iApps, etc.) for customizing the BIG-IP platform as well as providing interoperability with third-party products through APIs. Programmability could well be F5’s middle name.

Infrastructure Control Meets Application Lifecycle

Most recently, F5 has taken that programmability expertise and packaged it into a centralized orchestration and management platform called BIG-IQ, which will eventually replace the device-only management solution known currently as Enterprise Manager. In addition to managing BIG-IP devices (both physical and virtual), the platform includes cloud and security modules. Through a set of RESTful APIs, BIG-IQ is designed to act as an important integrated orchestration point, connecting control of F5’s own L4-L7 optimization and policy services with ADC resources residing both on-premise and in the cloud, as well as more traditionally-defined SDN controllers for establishing network connectivity. This represents a real and viable approach to bridging the gaps left by most current, purely network-centric SDN offerings.

A New Path for SDN

What does all of this mean? To sum up, F5 Networks solutions have always been sitting in a highly advantageous position for controlling and optimizing application performance and delivery. Add in the new BIG-IQ orchestration and the inherent programmability of the BIG-IP platform and we just might be looking at a whole new angle for making SDN a practical reality. But in that sense, it’s no longer just about the network—it’s about services and the policies that define them. In EMA’s view, F5 may very well be nudging us all down a new path—one that would be better called “Service-Defined Networking—to a place where SDN can add real and tangible value for the long term.