West had to satisfy high computational demands with a heterogeneous architecture that was difficult to manage. The company determined that it needed software-defined networking, an application-centric infrastructure, and the ability to intelligently manage high-volume traffic on demand—functionality that integrated F5 and Cisco ACI technologies readily provide.
West Corporation processed approximately 65 billion telephony minutes in 2015. Not only is the company’s client base expansive, so is its mission— to help manage or support essential enterprise communications. As just one example, West provides the core of the United States’ 911 infrastructure, which consisted of 290 million calls last year.
West has also acquired over 30 companies since 2002 resulting in a heterogeneous IT infrastructure. “Historically, we’ve been predominantly a Cisco shop,” says Jeremy Brown, Enterprise Network Architect at West. “The vast majority of our routing and switching infrastructure is Cisco. But we’ve got a mishmash of different topologies for routing and switching. We’ve had Cisco GSS, Citrix NetScaler, F5, and many commercial and custom line-of-business apps.” He says that every time West acquires a company, IT has to support the technology that comes with it. “We call it high-wire networking, and it’s without a net.”
However, West is moving away from running a collection of acquired companies’ technologies to a model in which West functions as a single entity, with a standardized IT infrastructure. “Rather than operating like dozens of different business units, we sought to preserve our investment in crucial technologies but consolidate our data centers and adopt a solution that would get everything to work together.”
To streamline its IT environment, West decided to use several F5 technologies integrated with the Cisco Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI).
Cisco ACI is a data center architecture with an integrated network fabric and centralized policy control. Here, fabric is a conceptual way to interconnect network nodes through network switches. “The way I look at it, ACI is a foundation of high-capacity, fast, reliable switches ,” says Brown. “We understand well its capabilities and reliability. We never know what demands customers will put on our applications, but ACI helps keep us ready.” He also agrees with another classic ACI decision driver, in which ACI optimizes the application lifecycle for scale and performance and supports application provisioning across West’s physical and virtual resources.
West augmented its ACI architecture with F5 Software-Defined Application Services. Here, application services refer to functionality provided primarily in the cloud that supports West’s applications. Software-defined means the application services can be programmed and customized to match the company’s processes.
West also opted for the open, programmable, and intelligent F5 BIG-IQ platform to provide management, orchestration, and control of West’s F5 BIG-IP devices and application services. “We’ve found the BIG-IQ platform to be great for orchestration,” says Brown
“We split our network in such a way that we can spin up applications and services, test them, and spin them down. That means we need software-defined networking, an application-centric infrastructure, and the ability to intelligently manage the traffic of these services essentially at a moment’s notice,” explains Brown.
“Combining F5 and ACI meets those needs, and we’re using the BIG-IQ platform to make the integration work best,” he continues. “We know what we’re getting with the F5/ACI fabric combination—it’s tangible and reliable, not guesswork.”
As part of a broader consolidation plan, the company standardized on the F5 VIPRION hardware platform with multiple modular performance blades. “I’m pushing everyone to the scalable VIPRION platform as fast as I possibly can,” says Brown. West uses F5 BIG-IQ Device to configure and manage its BIG-IP physical devices and BIG-IQ Security to centrally manage BIG-IP Advanced Firewall Manager (AFM) and BIG-IP Application Security Manager (ASM). “We’re going beyond a single-tier environment to a true multi-tiered network security approach,” he adds.
Other specific devices include BIG-IP Local Traffic Manager (LTM) and BIG-IP DNS for intelligent traffic management within and across West data centers. And it relies on BIG-IP Access Policy Manager (APM) for centralized control over network application and federated access.
West takes advantage of F5 iRules and F5 iApps templates to enforce application standards and quickly deploy application instances. Says Brown, “Choosing F5 modules was a no-brainer. For many years, I’ve been a big proponent of both Cisco ACI and F5—they work great and F5 is particular easy for IT to use.”
By consolidating data centers and standardizing on an integrated Cisco ACI and F5 application delivery infrastructure, West saves on IT costs, frees up IT resources to work on value-added projects, and gains more reliable systems and applications.
Data center consolidation and technology standardization nearly always lead to cost savings if a growing company chooses the right vendors and architecture. “After dozens of acquisitions, IT disparity and duplication had become ridiculous,” says Brown “To remedy this, we kept only our high-volume data centers and made them our key repositories and transport nodes, standardizing them on F5/ACI.” He notes that the power and throughput of the F5/ACI solution means fewer data centers can actually handle more computational work.
He continues, “With F5 and ACI, we’re generalizing our network platform into something that’s consumable for every line of business. Consequently, through amortization and eliminating duplicate licensing, We expect to get significant savings within the next fiscal year.”
West is using the F5/ACI solution to improve IT productivity in several ways. The company is defining complex policies that used to be time-consuming. “Our developers are really starting to appreciate BIG-IP APM, because it handles a lot of things that they didn’t like doing before and sometimes put off. Active Directory federation management is a perfect example,” says Brown. “That affects the business in that we’re now able to work on new and exciting services, addressing line-of-business needs that we didn’t even know we had.”
The company’s developers save time using iRules as well. “We spin up and spin down a lot of services, taking advantage of iRules for fast provisioning,” says Brown. As they understand more about the VIPRION platform’s potential, West developers use iRules to add value in new areas, such as security. “With iRules, as well as iApps, we can take an existing one, tweak it a little, and be ready to go,” he says. “We can solve 10 provisioning tasks in two hours, versus days. It’s exciting to think that as we standardize on F5 and ACI technology, as it becomes ubiquitous in the company, we’ll be able to operate more efficient, centric applications throughout the world.”
Brown says the VIPRION platform is easy to work on. “Tying F5 modules into our ACI infrastructure and sharing the route bridges across the back end was quick—done and done, and it works.” He notes that as staff members spin up other aggregated services, they can access just one or two devices. “Again using iRules, we can handle such tasks with one time-saving script.”
When maintenance problems do occur, Brown says that F5 offers fast, expert help. “We need partners that we can call and bring in right away to troubleshoot issues that may be beyond our own expertise. We do some crazy stuff here—it gets very complicated. But thanks to the F5 professionals’ creativity and help, we’ve become more effective as a networking group.”