F5 Friday: Platform versus Product

There’s a significant difference between a platform and a product, especially when it comes to architecting a dynamic data center

In the course of nearly a thousand blogs it’s quite likely you’ve seen BIG-IP referenced as a platform, and almost never as a product. There’s a reason for that, and it’s one that is increasingly becoming important as organizations begin to look at some major transformations to their data center architecture.

It’s not that BIG-IP isn’t a product. Ultimately, of course, it is in the traditional sense of the word. But it’s also a platform, an infrastructure platform, designed specifically to allow the deployment of application delivery-related services in a modular fashion. In the most general way, modern browsers are products and platforms, as they provide an application framework through which additional plug-ins (modules) can be deployed. BIG-IP is similar to this model with the noted exception that its internal application framework is intended for use by F5 engineers to develop new and integrate existing functionality as “plug-ins” within the core architectural framework we call TMOS™.

There are myriad reasons why this distinction is important. Primarily among them is a unified internal architecture implies internal, high-speed interconnects that allow inbound and outbound data to be shared across modules (plug-ins) without incurring the overhead of network-layer communication. Many developers can explain the importance of zero-copy operations as it relates to performance. Those that can’t will still likely be able to describe the difference between pass by reference and pass by value which, in many respects, has similar performance implications as the former simply passes a pointer to a memory location and the latter makes a copy. It’s similar to the difference between collaborative editing in Google Docs and tracking revisions in Word via e-mail – the former acts on a single, shared copy while the latter passes around the entire document.

Obviously, working on the same document at the same time is more efficient and ultimately faster than the alternative of passing around a complete copy and waiting for it to return, marked up with changes.


This theory translates well to the architectural principles behind TMOS and the BIG-IP platform: inbound and outbound data is shared across modules (plug-ins) in order to reduce the overhead associated with traditional network-based architectures that chain multiple products together. While the end-result may be similar, performance will certainly suffer and the loss of context incurred by architectural chaining may negatively impact the effectiveness (not to mention capabilities) of security-related functions.

The second piece of the platform puzzle are programmatic interfaces for external, i.e. third-party, development. This is the piece of the puzzle that makes a platform extensible. F5 TMOS provides for this with iRules, a programmatic scripting language that can be used to do, well, just about anything you want to do to inbound and outbound traffic. Whether it’s manipulating HTML, JSON, or HTTP headers or inspecting and modifying IP packets (disclaimer: we are not responsible for the anger of your security and/or network team for doing this without their involvement), iRules allows you to deploy unique functionality for just about any situation you can think of. Most often these capabilities are used to mitigate emergent threats – such as the THC SSL Renegotiation vulnerability – but they are also used to perform a variety of operational and application-specific tasks, such as redirection and holistic error-handling. And of course, who could forget my favorite, the random dice roll iRule. While certainly not of value to most organizations, such efforts can be good for learning. (That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.)

TMOS is a full proxy, and is unique in its ability to inspect and control entire application conversations. This enables F5 to offer an integrated, operationally consistent solution that can act based on the real time context of the user, network, and application across a variety of security, performance, and availability concerns.

That means access control and application security as well as load balancing and DNS services leverage the same operational model, the same types of policies, the same environment across all services regardless of location or form-factor. iRules can simultaneously interact with DNS and WAF policies, assuming both BIG-IP GTM and BIG-IP ASM are deployed on the same instance. The zero-copy nature of the high-speed bus that acts as the interconnect between the switching backplane and the individual modules insures the highest levels of performance without requiring a traversal of the network.

Because of the lack of topological control in cloud computing environments – public and private – the need for an application delivery platform is increasing. The volatility in IP topology is true for not only server and storage infrastructure, but increasingly for the network as well, making the architecture of a holistic application delivery network using individually chained components more and more difficult, if not impossible.

A platform with the ability to scale out and across both physical and virtual instances while simultaneously sharing configuration to ensure operational consistency is a key component to a successful, cloud-based initiative whether its private, public, or a combination of both. A platform provides the flexibility and extensibility required to meet head on the challenges of highly dynamic environments while ensuring the ability to enforce policies that directly address and mitigate operational risk (security, performance, availability).

A product, without the extensibility and programmatic nature of a platform, is unable to meet these same challenges. Context is lost in the traversal of the network and performance is always negatively impacted when multiple network-based connections must be made. A platform maintains context and performance while allowing the broadest measure of flexibility in deploying the right solutions at the right time.

Published Nov 18, 2011
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