Question and answer with Lori MacVittie, senior technical marketing manager at F5 Networks (www.f5.com):
DCP: Why is application delivery useful in today’s enterprise data centers?
F5: Application delivery focuses on ensuring applications are fast, available, and secure. It is a critical data center tier in most enterprise data centers today, even if it comprises only load balancing, a core service, to assure availability. Application delivery enables the use of acceleration, optimization, and security techniques to improve the end-user experience while also maximizing efficiency of application-supporting infrastructure.
Application delivery implements a virtualized layer that mediates between clients and the resources – typically applications – located within the data center to which those clients desire access. This is useful because it provides the means by which policies focused on performance, security, and availability can be applied to an application in a flexible, consistent way based on the unique conditions associated with a request. Delivery policies can be dynamically applied based on not only the user, but location, type of device, and application as well as network conditions at the time of the request. This allows organizations to enforce and leverage policies that protect the applications, the network, and the user while ensuring the best performance possible.
DCP: How can data center and IT managers benefit from it?
F5: Application delivery provides a shared infrastructure upon which application delivery policies can be deployed and managed more efficiently.
For example, it is often the case that access management solutions must be integrated into the architecture to enforce access policies. This requires additional hardware, software, and integration. By consolidating access management with other application delivery services, the complexity of such an architecture is eliminated, which reduces the time required to deploy application delivery related policies as well as the chance of misconfiguration that can lead to unauthorized access or unintended denials of access. It also allows delivery-related services to scale along with the applications, ensuring that the services upon which applications rely to manage access and security do not become a bottleneck or fall victim to attack.
Application delivery offers IT managers and operations a strategic point of control at which application delivery can be more efficiently managed without impacting the application infrastructure. It eases the transformation from traditional, static data center models to more fluid and volatile modern data centers based on virtualization and cloud computing models by providing a layer of control that isolates end-users and operations from the network and application changes occurring from rapid provisioning and migration.
DCP: Where should (application delivery) rank in terms of overall priority in the data center?
F5: At the top, of course! Seriously, it should rank high in overall priority because of the critical nature of the services it provides. At its most simplistic, the load balancing services provided by application delivery are an integral component to today’s data centers and are the foundation for scalability and availability of both traditional and virtualized applications. The application delivery tier is also both the first and last lines of defense against attacks, preventing network and application-layer attacks from reaching applications and their supporting infrastructure, most of which cannot withstand the high volume of connections and traffic being generated by modern miscreants. Application delivery is a critical component to the successful deployment and adoption of a variety of enterprise services including VDI, Exchange, web applications, and even DNS services. Having a flexible application delivery tier in place before applications are developed or deployed enables IT the ability to design more flexible and dynamic architectures that will scale more efficiently and cause less disruption when new or modified delivery policies must be deployed, such as when new mobile devices require support or a new attack has been discovered which required immediate redress.
DCP: What are the biggest challenges for data center and IT managers when it comes to application delivery?
F5: Integration. Application delivery encompasses a wide variety of technologies – acceleration and optimization, web application security and access management, load balancing and secure remote access. The broad spectrum of services that can be included under the application delivery umbrella is often confusing, and the need to integrate each of those services and technologies into a comprehensive architecture in the data center is a significant challenge. That challenge is not just at the network layer, where topological challenges abound, but at the application layer when two separate devices must be integrated to provide a seamless authentication and authorization experience for end-users without losing necessary security and audit information required for compliance and by corporate policy.
After implementation, there are still many challenges to overcome and the biggest revolves around understanding the applications they are tasked with delivering and security well enough to monitor, manage, and apply the right policies to ensure successful delivery. Operations must understand the business and operational requirements with respect to performance, availability, and security before they can codify them into deployable application delivery policies.
Something as simple as the choice of load balancing algorithm can dramatically impact performance and availability of applications. Choosing the right one is a matter of understanding the application, its usage patterns, and business requirements – characteristics that are generally understood by developers and business stakeholders. Data center and IT managers must ensure that those within the organization with the domain expertise are included early in the deployment process to ensure the right application delivery policies are deployed for each application.
DCP: How can data center and IT managers overcome those challenges?
F5: Data center and IT managers can overcome these challenges by initiating conversation earlier in the application development and/or deployment process. By including delivery requirements up front, operations and developers can more clearly determine where in the data center architecture services should be implemented. Creating a team responsible for performance and availability specifically can be of aid here, as there are a wide variety of application delivery services that can assist and assure both, both choosing the right service for a given application and delivery scenario is imperative to ensuring success in meeting the challenge.
6. What advice can you give to IT and data center managers that have a plethora of similar solutions to choose from?
Shorten the list of possible solutions based on a few key criteria and then evaluate in the environment in which the solution will be deployed. Key criteria for application delivery includes speeds and feeds, of course, but goes well beyond such simplistic characteristics. Given today’s emerging data center models, it is important to consider the scalability model of the solution – i.e. how does the solution scale both applications and services as well as itself? Consider the services available as well as the extensibility. Is the solution a platform or a product? If it is a platform, what delivery services can be deployed on it, if it is a product ask about integration with other solutions.
Management and integration with other data center solutions is also a critical factor to evaluate. Today’s data centers are becoming more automated and self-sufficient, but that occurs because of integration and collaboration in the infrastructure. Rapid provisioning that enables auto-scaling, for example, requires collaboration between load balancing services and server provisioning systems, so pre-packaged integration is a must for application delivery. Flexible management, too, via scripting and standards-based interfaces is increasingly important to enable automated deployment and custom integration.
Look for solutions that are service-oriented, that can enable the data center transformation arising from virtualization, consumerization, and cloud computing in the most efficient manner possible for IT as well end-users. The solution providing the least amount of disruption to IT and the business will enable a smoother transition as technology morphs and imposes additional burdens on IT.
Application delivery as a market can be a confusing one, with the term being used to describe a variety of services as well as an overarching strategy. Focusing on key characteristics of application delivery – an application-centric model that is contextually aware and mitigates operational risk (performance, availability, and security) – will enable data center and IT managers to better evaluate whether a solution is really focused on application delivery or merely on individual pain points within that demesne.
The key word in application delivery is “application.” The focal point of all application delivery should be the application – from security to performance to end-user experience to scalability.