TL; DR: In the early 2000s, F5 Networks found that its expertise in load balancing technology gave it unique insights into its customers’ network IT needs. So the company began developing a suite of application networking tools focused on secure delivery and availability across enterprise server, storage, and network resources. A key aspect of F5’s mission is to help customers gain more value from their IT assets by optimizing both security and application integration. And it accomplishes its mission by drawing on two decades of experience and an in-depth understanding of cloud and datacenter infrastructure.
Many businesses benefit from the speed of application deployment in modern datacenters, but the process can also introduce significant complexity. That’s because organizations must juggle the demands of legacy infrastructure and increasing reliance on the cloud, new application architectures, and relentless cyber threats.
According to the 2020 State of Application Services Report, produced by load-balancing pioneer F5 Networks, 80% of organizations it surveyed are driven by a need to accelerate speed to market. And applications are now “the vehicle organizations rely on to deliver differentiated digital experiences to their customers,” the F5 report said.
The company has a unique perspective on the issue. Since its launch in 1996, F5 has established itself as a durable vendor in the networked IT solutions market.
F5 first achieved prominence with its flagship BIG-IP load balancer solution, and the company soon established a reputation as a leader in that area. The BIG-IP product has evolved into a framework of hardware and software modules, and has focused on application security management, access control and authentication, firewall management, threat detection, and a range of website security applications.
The company has extended its reach through organic growth and occasional acquisition and has enfranchised the cloud and containerization markets along the way.
F5 is not easy to categorize as a solutions vendor because it operates across a broad scope of IT products and services. But its value proposition is straightforward for its clients.
“We make your apps faster, available, and secure,” said Lori MacVittie, F5’s Principal Technical Evangelist, Office of the CTO.
And it continues to emphasize the importance of load balancing as a point of focus from which to monitor a broad spectrum of IT functionality.
“We offer a range of products to help speed up websites, to make them faster. We continued to build on that, and we still do a lot of acceleration, but now it is baked into everything,” Lori said.
Tools to Bounce Bots and Let Real Customers Through
Because load balancing is a form of data traffic analysis, it proves an effective way to see what’s going on inside a datacenter.
“Historically, as F5’s BIG-IP platform sat between clients and servers, it understood just about everything that occurred between them. Therefore, we could help manage that traffic to optimize performance for clients,” Lori said.
Since then, F5 has continued to establish a reputation for cybersecurity expertise that’s also informed by the changing threat landscape faced by its customers. Lori said that bots, or automated scripts and functions, were a prime example.
“Bots are now a real problem for our F5 clients. They are losing their customers because bot attack traffic makes it increasingly difficult for legitimate customers to access their websites,” Lori said.
These attacks can drain resources and block consumers from websites long enough to do real damage to the bottom line. That’s why F5 acquired Shape Security as part of its response to its clients experiencing those problems.
“Shape focuses on anti-fraud and bot protection, and it has some innovative capabilities in the way it analyzes traffic. It also correlates data points, including who you are and what type of browser you have, to find out if it’s a real customer or a bot that’s accessing a website. It’s cool the way we can leverage technology to meet important security challenges like that.”
Leveraging Experience to Advance Container Deployment
According to Lori, the advent of cloud is the industry trend that poses the most significant challenge to both technology providers and consumers in F5’s two decades of operation.
“Cloud has been, and continues to be, disruptive across many industries,” she said. “It has caused business models and IT deployments to change. It created so much disruption on the market, and it has proved hard to adapt to for some businesses.”
F5 dealt with some of those same issues initially, and it started with which major cloud service provider to support. Those decisions always seem like a bit of a gamble early on, as it can be difficult to tell which provider will gain market leadership.
“I think just about everyone in the technology industry has had those debates and asked those questions,” Lori said.
In addition to the widespread shift to the cloud, the trend toward containerization also presented more recognizable challenges for F5.
“With containers, most of the traditional issues that you have in a typical datacenter or network environment — such as security and scale — are also present and pertinent. It’s a different ecosystem, but a lot of container ecosystems are very open right now.”
That’s why Lori also described this as an exciting time for the present market because F5 can contribute with experience, expertise, and the right products. And it can help businesses put it right into their code.
“It’s an opportunity for our developers to participate in those communities and give back. It’s still a challenge because it moves a lot faster than most other technologies — and it seems like there’s something new every day. But it’s been great,” she said
Real-Time Innovation Expands Value for Customers
Her position as Principal Technical Evangelist enables Lori to watch breakthrough technological developments from research to customer deployment.
“My favorite F5 solution has always been the programmatic interface into the actual traffic flow. That is the ability to sample network traffic and accomplish tasks with it as it’s flowing through the system, and then send it on to an app. We can enrich headers, we can remove headers, we can insert security — the list goes on. You can do all sorts of things.”
F5 also differentiates itself, and its value proposition, by encouraging input for new product developments from its field force. That includes the engineers and product managers who work directly with customers.
And members of its field force may even embed within a customer’s IT team, according to Lori. F5 customer sales engineers can innovate in the field and come up with additional solutions, which makes it easier to develop and roll out new features that way.
“We work together to develop solutions that solve real user problems, and those enhancements often prove helpful to F5’s other customers, Lori said. “It also helps bring the company together because that innovation happens across the workforce, and not just inside a development team or one part of the organization. Everyone’s involved. It’s a culture that enables people to experiment and see where it goes.”
F5 Networks: Client Satisfaction Drives Market Share
F5’s market longevity is a reflection of its capabilities and the global demand for its expertise. In fact, 48 of the Fortune 50 enterprises use F5 products and services.
One of the challenges of longevity is maintaining market differentiation in a highly changeable sector, and having a value proposition that appeals to successive generations of customers.
“Our value proposition can be as much about F5’s culture and client support as our products and services,” Lori said. “Our field organization and its determination to help customers figure out solutions — that’s the value threshold that F5 has maintained over time. We have APIs, we can write new code, and we can do things architecturally to solve those specific challenges.”