F5 Networks' acquisition of software-defined networking startup LineRate Systems should pave the way for F5 to modernize its application delivery controllers down to its operating system.
F5, the industry leader in application delivery controllers (ADCs), acquired startup LineRate this week, but it offered very few details of how it will make use of the technology it gained with the deal. LineRate markets itself as an SDN company that focuses on Layer 4-7 services.
LineRate Systems' core technology is the LineRate Operating System (LROS), which has a much faster networking stack than the operating systems that most networking platforms are built upon, such as Linux, BSD Unix and Solaris. LROS enables the development of Layer 4-7 network services that can run on standard x86 servers with much higher performance and scalability. The company had been developing SDN-style programmability on its platforms, including LineRate Proxy, a traffic steering product for service providers.
"LineRate has very geeky, low-layer technology breakthroughs that allow Layer 4-7 services to be delivered in software at very high performance," said Andrew Stern, F5's vice president of corporate development. "Those are compelling technologies that we're going to incorporate. They also have a high degree of programmability built into their products that we think we can extend to our own iRules programmability."
IDC analyst Brad Casemore said LROS has a very streamlined TCP stack that allows customers to deploy high-performance and highly scalable Layer 4-7 network services on x86 hardware.
"Although [F5] has very rich software functionality in TMOS, they've sold that software in a hardware appliance in the past," Casemore said. "But they're going to take the long view and look at where a substantial part of their customer base wants to go. With this acquisition they've indicated that they're not going to be dogmatic. They're not always going to sell the box."
The integration of F5 and LineRate's technology will take a long time, Casemore said. "It's more of a technology rollup than a revenue- or channel-based acquisition in that it's helping them with their [intellectual property] and their technology," Casemore said. He said F5 won't likely come to market in three or five months with a roadmap for how the technology will come together.
LineRate Systems: An eventual replacement for F5's TMOS
LineRate will offer F5 a path toward modernizing both its core TMOS platform and its iRules scripting system, said Joe Skorupa, vice president and distinguished analyst for Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc. Although F5 has said the TMOS software on its BIG-IP ADCs is custom-built from the ground up, Skorupa believes it is based on BSD UNIX, an operating system that most of the world isn't working with today.
"When F5 built TMOS -- it was started almost 12 years ago -- they built it with what was the latest thinking and the best tools available, but the underlying infrastructure in TMOS is starting to get long in the tooth. If you were building BIG-IP from scratch today, a strong argument would be made that you would be building it on a different OS," Skorupa said.
With LineRate's LROS, F5 could migrate different services in its BIG-IP portfolio gradually, and the company could build a path towards building high-performance software-based BIG-IP platforms.
"I'm not saying the current TMOS platform goes away, but there will be places where the LineRate platform is certainly a better choice and eventually it may in fact wind up replacing TMOS. Not this year or next year, but five or 10 years down the road it is certainly conceivable," Skorupa said."F5 doesn't want to talk about it because it doesn't want to scare current customers. And customers shouldn't freak out about it. But we learn new things and we live in new environments, and when TMOS was written, you didn't have off-the-shelf hardware where in a server blade you might have 48 processor cores and a terabyte of memory."
The programmability of LineRate's SDN technology may also be a successor to F5's extremely popular iRules scripting engine, which customers use to customize their ADCs for countless applications and websites. Skorupa said iRules is based on TCL-TK, a high-overhead, interpretative scripting language that today's generation of young engineers is unfamiliar with.
"There are newer things out there that are potentially higher performance and you have a whole bunch of people coming out of college and going into IT who have never heard of TCL-TK. A lot of these folks have been coding since they were ten years old, and it sure as heck wasn't TCL-TK. They grew up in a world of rich Internet apps."
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