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Application Performance Jumps 300 Percent for Federal Agency Using F5 Solution

A U.S.-based defense contractor manages IT operations for a federal agency that provides geospatial intelligence services. The contractor needed to ensure high availability and reliability for the intelligence data, so it chose to replace the infrastructure’s aging load balancers with Application Delivery Controllers (ADCs) from F5.

Using the F5 solution, the contractor simplified IT management and boosted application performance by as much as 300 percent. Furthermore, the contractor capitalized on the capabilities of F5 devices to accomplish a massive data center consolidation for the agency.

Business Challenges

A Virginia-based contractor provides IT solutions for several government organizations, including many U.S. military and intelligence agencies. One agency the contractor partners with is responsible for supplying map-based intelligence for U.S. National defense, homeland security, and safety of navigation.

In 2009, this agency tasked the contractor with managing the operations of its information gateway, a web-based environment that provides intelligence data to support recovery efforts after natural disasters and global military actions. For instance, the agency provided mapping, charting, and navigational data for humanitarian efforts following catastrophic flooding in the Midwest in 2008 and the Haiti earthquake of 2010. It also provides ongoing assistance for U.S. Military actions in Afghanistan.

The contractor relied on the software- based load balancing capabilities of the agency’s Cisco IOS network switches to manage access to more than a petabyte of intelligence data. However, this infrastructure was aging, difficult to manage, and lacked essential functionality.

“We were unable to easily monitor the health of the environment so that we could intelligently redirect traffic to available servers,” says the contractor’s applications hosting system engineer.  Additionally, the agency needed to be able to scale the infrastructure on demand because web and application traffic traveling through the gateway often surged unexpectedly.

The contractor was also tasked with consolidating hundreds of legacy servers as part of the agency’s data center consolidation effort. “We needed a flexible, extensible solution that would allow us to eliminate servers while ensuring flawless delivery of services,” says the contractor’s senior systems engineer.

“With BIG-IP solutions, we have awesome service delivery capabilities …. F5 enables us to be extremely agile, delivering mission-critical data quickly and reliably.” Senior Systems Engineer for a defense contractor

Solution

As the agency embarked on an infrastructure overhaul and data center consolidation, the contractor consulted the agency’s Dell representative about replacing the Cisco-based load balancing solution. The agency is a long-standing Dell customer, and its representative recommended Application Delivery Controllers from F5. The contractor evaluated the F5 devices, as well as Cisco ACE technologies. “Between F5 devices and Cisco ACE, there was no contest in ease of management and flexibility,” says the contractor’s senior systems engineer.

The contractor deployed eight BIG-IP Local Traffic Manager (LTM) devices to manage traffic to the agency’s information gateway servers, including its Microsoft SharePoint Server 2010 environment. It also made use of the F5 Application Ready Solution Template for SharePoint Server 2010, which provides a wizard-like environment for configuring F5 devices with SharePoint Server 2010.

To boost the performance of all applications including SharePoint, the contractor used the BIG-IP WebAccelerator module—which significantly accelerates applications by using intelligent technologies, including SSL offload, dynamic caching, and compression. The contractor also uses the BIG-IP devices to manage and monitor traffic to the agency’s Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP) server, and takes advantage of the F5 Advanced Client Authentication module to centrally manage and enforce client authentication for applications.

The contractor is using BIG-IP devices as the basis for the agency’s new consolidated, highly virtualized environment. All traffic to the information gateway, whether to physical servers or VMware-based virtualized servers, is managed by the F5 devices. The agency relies on VMware vCenter Server and the VMware ESXi hypervisor, and it uses BIG-IP Local Traffic Manager Virtual Edition (VE) to transport traffic related to virtualize Apache- and Adobe ColdFusion- based applications, SharePoint Server 2010, and its Microsoft SQL Server environment.

“The F5 devices allow us to actively monitor and load balance SQL Server,” adds the contractor’s applications hosting system engineer. “With the previous load balancer, we did not have the capability to perform a SQL Server query to determine which server is the master—now we do.”

“Many of the agency’s code-heavy, dense web pages load up to 97 percent faster with BIG-IP LTM and BIG-IP WebAccelerator …” Senior Systems Engineer for a defense contractor

Benefits

Using BIG-IP products, the contractor has increased availability, performance, and reliability for the agency’s information gateway applications, and has eased management and administration. The BIG-IP devices and modules are also key to the agency’s data center consolidation efforts.

Improved performance and availability

Using an F5 solution, the contractor was able to create a high-performance, high- availability environment to support the agency’s geospatial intelligence data.  For example, the caching, compression, and SSL offload capabilities of BIG-IP WebAccelerator help boost performance of some applications by as much as 300 percent.  “With BIG-IP LTM and WebAccelerator, our SharePoint Server environment performs nearly three times faster than it did before,” says the contractor’s applications hosting system engineer.

In general, web page load times in the new environment have been dramatically reduced. “Many of the agency’s code- heavy, dense web pages load up to 97 percent faster with BIG-IP LTM and BIG-IP WebAccelerator, even at peak traffic times,” says the contractor’s senior systems engineer. “With BIG-IP solutions, we have awesome service delivery capabilities to support everything the agency does—from humanitarian efforts after natural disasters to providing intelligence to U.S. military ground troops. The majority of our work is dictated by world events. F5 enables us to be extremely agile, delivering mission- critical data quickly and reliably.”

Furthermore, with the agency’s LDAP server traffic being managed by the BIG-IP LTM devices, the contractor expects to improve uptime because it can now provide real- time failover capabilities for the directory service. It can also monitor the environment more successfully than with a standard Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) monitor.  “Monitoring performance using F5 is much more accurate and doesn’t cause errors like TCP monitors often do,” says the contractor’s applications hosting system engineer.

Easier management and administration

The contractor uses application health monitoring capabilities, such as a built-in performance dashboard, to gain insight into server performance and availability.  “With F5, we’re aware of potential issues before they become a problem and can redirect traffic so that users always have access to the geospatial data they need,” says the contractor’s applications hosting system engineer. “And because of the interoperability between F5 and VMware solutions, we can manage how the BIG-IP devices handle application traffic to virtual machines from within the agency’s VMware vCenter Server environment.”

Looking toward the future, the contractor is evaluating BIG-IP Access Policy Manager (APM) as a replacement for the agency’s current public key infrastructure system, which is based on CA SiteMinder technology. BIG-IP APM provides secure, context- aware web access policy management with authentication, authorization, and accounting (AAA) control directly from the BIG-IP devices.