Case Studies Archive Search Case Studies

College Boosts IT Productivity; Secures Applications and Network with F5 Solution

Sinclair Community College is one of Ohio’s largest two-year colleges. The school’s computer network serves nearly 30,000 users, but outdated network appliances made it difficult for the IT staff to manage traffic efficiently, and many routine maintenance tasks could only be done by network engineers. Since replacing its legacy load balancers with F5 BIG-IP advanced Application Delivery Controller and security solutions, performance has improved, applications are easier to manage, the IT staff is more productive, and the entire environment is better protected.

Business Challenges

 

At Sinclair Community College, students and faculty don’t have to download application software or store data files on their personal laptops. All applications— from email and online registration software to specialized classroom curriculum and distance learning programs—are centrally managed by the IT department and made available to students through a web portal. These applications include Microsoft Exchange Server 2010, Blackboard’s ANGEL learning management system (LMS) software, and a variety of specialized applications for individual departments, like nursing and engineering. The IT team at Sinclair delivers critical applications to students and faculty.

To support this on-demand application delivery model, the IT team uses Microsoft Application Virtualization (App-V). With App-V, IT can stream applications to users, maintain complete control over all applications, and avoid the labor and complexity of maintaining systems across five campuses. For users, App-V provides instant access to applications from anywhere, and automatically stores all their data on App-V servers.

The IT team’s challenge was to deliver applications and services quickly and reliably to its 30,000 faculty and student users. Sinclair had been using Foundry load balancers since 2004, but they lacked the functionality and flexibility required to manage high volumes of traffic efficiently and securely. Bandwidth and throughput were issues, especially during periods of peak traffic volume, when servers would often crash.

The command-line interface (CLI) of the existing load balancers and the cryptic network visibility they provided were significant limitations as well. Without a user-friendly GUI, application managers couldn’t monitor or analyze traffic, and system engineers couldn’t perform simple tasks like rebooting a server. Instead, the burden fell to the only 2 network engineers on the 10-member IT staff.  “Whenever someone needed to add or remove a server or port, for example, one of the network engineers had to Telnet into the management console and perform those tasks for them,” says Chad  Rumbarger, Network Engineer at Sinclair. Troubleshooting or tracing a traffic problem was difficult and time-consuming. “You practically had to be a Foundry engineer to understand what the traffic was doing.”

After seven years, Sinclair had outgrown its legacy load balancers. “We wanted a more intuitive, easy-to-use solution so that our systems and applications people could perform simple administrative tasks,” says Rumbarger. “And we needed to be able to deliver applications reliably and securely. The Foundry devices had no built-in security capabilities, and with cyber-attacks becoming more prevalent, we wanted to protect our network and applications.”

“We firmly believe that F5 delivers cutting edge technology—and no other vendor has anything even close to F5’s DevCentral.” Chad Rumbarger, Network Engineer, Sinclair Community College

Solution

 

In the last few years, Application Delivery Controllers (ADCs), which integrate multiple application delivery functions on a single device or platform, have begun to edge out legacy load balancers. Wanting to take advantage of these advanced features, Sinclair evaluated ADC solutions from several vendors, including a primary F5 competitor.  “F5 offered several advantages with its built- in, role-based access management features; a strong browser-based interface; and the ability to incorporate security functions in the same device,” says Rumbarger, adding that F5 was also highly recommended by Blackboard for use with its ANGEL LMS.

In early spring 2011, Sinclair replaced its existing load balancers with two BIG-IP Local Traffic Manager (LTM) devices with the BIG-IP Application Security Manager (ASM) module. This solution provides intelligent traffic management, improves application performance and availability, and protects web-based applications from security threats.

“We’re completely confident with our decision to go with F5,” says Rumbarger.  “We did our research with industry analysts, and visited the University of Massachusetts and other colleges that are using F5 quite successfully. We firmly believe that F5 delivers cutting edge technology—and no other vendor has anything even close to F5’s DevCentral.” Rumbarger is referring to the 82,000-member F5 online technical user community, which was an invaluable source for shared code, tips, and best-practices guidance as Sinclair deployed its F5 solution.

“BIG-IP ASM…monitors traffic to examine accepted use of an application and then augments protection…by scanning for known attacks.” Chad Rumbarger, Network Engineer, Sinclair Community College

Benefits

 

With the F5 advanced ADC solution, Sinclair Community College’s application environment is far easier to manage, and the IT staff is more productive. In addition, Sinclair’s network, applications, and data are more secure now that IT is better able to block malicious traffic and inappropriate use of applications.

Simplified administration

One of Sinclair’s primary goals in replacing  its load balancers was to give non- networking staff the ability to analyze traffic and perform simple tasks like a system reboot. By providing an easy-to-use GUI, the F5 solution enables application management staff to accomplish these and similar tasks with very little training—and without help from network engineers. “Before, application managers kept a notebook with a list of commands they needed for the particular tasks they performed,” says Rumbarger. “Now with the GUI that F5 provides, they can see exactly how their applications are being accessed and behaving just by clicking on a server. With this visibility, they can easily carry out the necessary tasks to keep their applications running efficiently.”

Improved productivity

With the ability to assign role-based access controls, Rumbarger has been able to delegate tasks and distribute the workload more evenly among IT staff members.  “With F5, I can create policy-based rules for different groups of people, such as the application managers, and give them appropriate levels of permission. For example, those who have read-only access can monitor the status of their servers; those who have read/write access can make changes that previously would have required opening a support case,” says Rumbarger. Now that the IT staff can perform job-specific tasks, the number of support cases has dropped, enabling everyone to work more efficiently.

 Improved security

Prior to implementing the F5 solution, Sinclair was limited in its ability to block malicious traffic attempting to enter the network. With BIG-IP ASM, Sinclair avoided the need to add separate security devices and now has more advanced protection for its web applications. “The great thing about BIG-IP ASM is its ‘learning mode,’ which monitors traffic to examine accepted use of an application and then augments  protection of that application by scanning for known attacks,” says Rumbarger. BIG-IP ASM also accelerates deployments by providing built-in security policies that require no configuration for common applications like Microsoft Exchange Server and Outlook Web App. “BIG-IP ASM also lets us refine our security policies down to a very granular level,” adds Rumbarger.

Exceptional technical resources

From Rumbarger’s perspective, DevCentral is one of the most valuable perks of owning an F5 solution. For instance, the powerful F5 iRules scripting language makes it possible to search, intercept, inspect, and transform IP traffic flowing between applications and users. These iRules are one of the most commonly shared items among members of the F5 DevCentral user community. “The information available on DevCentral is phenomenal,” says Rumbarger.  “IRules are easy to write, but we didn’t even need to take that step; we found what we needed from other DevCentral users,” says Rumbarger.

Rumbarger says the F5 Professional Services consultants who performed the installations of BIG-IP products were top-notch and helped him solve a long-standing issue. “We had never been able to get the Foundry devices to load balance traffic across multiple App-V servers, and we didn’t realize when we purchased F5 that the BIG-IP devices provided that support. F5’s consultants set that up for us, and it works beautifully.” As a result, Sinclair was able to expand that deployment and can now intelligently distribute traffic across four App-V servers.