Briefing: Big-IP

Big-IP v9
starting at $16,995
F5 Networks
Seattle, Washington
(206) 272-5555

You may know F5 as a vendor of high-end networking equipment designed to help network administrators manage the application traffic on their networks. They've recently introduced a new version of their flagship Big-IP devices, and I had a few minutes to talk to them about the innovations.

What Big-IP does is centralize a lot of different network operations into a single box that talks to both your servers and the outside world: SSL acceleration, traffic shaping, load balancing, content acceleration, firewalling, and more. It does this by implementing full TCP/IP stacks on both ends, and putting a "Traffic Management Operating System" in between. This TM/OS is what gives Big-IP the flexibility to respond to nearly anything about network traffic; it has completely visibility into the packets as they fly by and can do most anything with them.

To give you the flavor of what Big-IP can do, here are a few of the reference applications that we chatted about:

  • Selectively compressing content based on the speed of the client connection and the application that they're using on the server end.
  • Centralizing authentication and encrypting cookies transparently.
  • Caching database result sets so that the database server isn't hung up waiting for clients at wire speeds.
  • Handling SSL connections with no server load at all.

All of this is managed by a slick Web-based GUI that allows the network administrator to create application profiles and assign particular virtual servers to use particular profiles. If a new application goes live, you can create a new profile, or just pick an existing one with the right characteristics, and have it take advantage of Big-IP's features very quickly. There's also a programmable network language, iRules, that allows customization outside of the GUI.

The nice thing about Big-IP from the application developers' point of view is that we don't have to worry so much about network infrastructure when designing applications. With all of these features for shaping, managing, and compressing data, administrators can take even high- bandwidth applications to the Web safely. Of course, that's not carte blanche to do things inefficiently, but it does provide some breathing room.


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