F5 tries to stay ahead of the curve with moves into security and beyond

F5 Networks is best known for its high-end network management hardware, especially its BIG-IP line of load balancers. Those offerings have fueled annual revenue growth from $525 million to more than $1.3 billion since 2007, even in the face of the recent recession.

But even this undoubted heavyweight has to change with the times. Since hiring Cisco veteran Manny Rivello to head up a new security department in October 2011, F5 has been planning a large-scale partnership with web filtering company Websense, which was made public on Monday. F5's aim is to add another security layer to its offerings, which the company hopes will keep it a step ahead of the competition.

[MORE F5: F5's SDN investment puts it in play with Cisco, Juniper]

The idea is to combine the two companies' divergent expertise in security into one product - F5's hardware firewall and access controls alongside Websense's malware protection and content inspection. While the only immediate result of the announcement was new interoperability for BIG-IP and V-Series appliances, the main goal is to offer the option of Websense services running on F5 hardware.

The advantages to the customer seem fairly clear-cut - the ability to handle multiple security functions along with network acceleration on a single piece of hardware is valuable, and Forrester Research analyst Andre Kindness says it addresses a trend toward doing more with less in IT.

"People aren't just throwing in boxes anymore - security is really becoming embedded across" the network, he says.

It's important for F5 to make a move, according to Kindness - commodity hardware is increasingly able to provide the core application delivery and load balancing functions offered by F5's devices, making the company's growing stable of add-on services a vital differentiator from cheaper Brand X alternatives. Ensuring that those services provide substantial value for money helps keep F5 a step ahead.

More than attracting new buyers, Kindness says, new offerings like security help convince existing customers not to defect.

"F5 needs what Websense is offering," he says. "It's a necessity as part of their direction.

F5's move towards security goes well beyond the Websense deal, however - the company announced a new firewall add-in for its Local Traffic Manager product along with new VIPRION and BIG-IP hardware last month, and the BIG-IP line was certified as a hardware firewall by ICSA last January.

"Remember that many people still perceive F5 as the load balancer company, so for F5 to succeed it must first demonstrate its network security chops. This means convincing its customers that it is committed to network security and that its product is as strong on security protection as it is on performance," wrote Network World blogger John Oltsik at the time.

F5 seems determined to do just that. Senior Product Marketing Manager Greg Maudsley says the budding security business accounts for a "significant" percentage of F5's revenues, though he declined to provide specific numbers.

"We're seeing real uptake with our customers, and green-field accounts where people have traditionally gone with another vendor are now looking to F5 to solve some of these problems for remote access or firewall," he says.

Security isn't the only area in which F5 is searching for added value. The company spent an undisclosed sum last month to acquire software-defined networking startup LineRate Systems, saying that it plans to integrate LineRate's technology and expertise into its own SDN development.

F5 also rolled out a BYOD management service mere days ago, and has made inroads into several other hot-button IT markets like virtualization and cloud.

According to Forrester's Kindness, F5 is far from being the only network hardware vendor pursuing a strategy of diversification. Citrix, he says, is working to tie its own load balancing product in with WAN optimization technology, while - conversely - WAN optimization company Riverbed recently acquired a smaller firm with the aim of breaking into load balancing.

"You see this in the bigger companies that have been the market leaders in their areas; you see them expanding into other areas [because] they have to figure out how to increase their revenues," Kindness says.

Email Jon Gold at jgold@nww.com and follow him on Twitter at @NWWJonGold.

Read more about lan and wan in Network World's LAN & WAN section.

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