With thousands of franchisees relying on its services, Independent Purchasing Cooperative, Inc. (IPC), a SUBWAY® franchisee-owned organization, replaced its Citrix virtual networking appliances with an F5 solution. As a result, IPC was able to consolidate and unify several application delivery services on a single platform, simplify its IT infrastructure and operations, and establish a solid, flexible platform that will accommodate IPC’s future growth and technology goals.
IPC is the behind-the-scenes powerhouse that keeps the SUBWAY supply chain running. Based in Miami, Florida, IPC of North America is a purchasing co-op owned by SUBWAY franchisees in the U.S., Canada, and Puerto Rico. IPC serves 30,000 franchise restaurants, negotiating the lowest prices for purchased goods and services while also aiming to improve quality, enhance competitiveness, and ensure value to SUBWAY members and customers.
The IT team at IPC manages SUBWAY TV & Radio™, the in-store digital signage service, as well as many web properties, including www.ipcoop.com, www.mysubwaycard.com, www.tellsubway.com, and www.mysubwaycareer.com. Traffic to these sites can be heavy—mysubwaycareer.com alone gets thousands of applicants per day—so ensuring that servers are highly available and responsive is critical.
When IPC began virtualizing its IT infrastructure based on VMware vSphere, it deployed Citrix virtual appliances to load balance traffic to its applications and web servers. Since the beginning, however, support services had been lacking, according to Anthony Ronconi, IPC’s Director of IT Infrastructure and Operations. “Citrix was never able to provide the technical expertise we needed to get beyond the standard set-up and configuration and help us utilize advanced features and functionality.”
One example involved URL redirection for applications like www.tellsubway.com, which is available in nearly 100 countries. Tying all of those unique URLs back into one application required the IT team to set up some complex rules. “URL redirects were very difficult to do with Citrix; it required a lot of extra work every time we had a new domain or a new application,” says Giovani Potesta, Manager of IT Infrastructure at IPC.
Maintenance pages for websites posed similar challenges. Marcos Morales, Senior IT Infrastructure Engineer at IPC says, “With Citrix, when a website was down, we had to redirect users to another web server to present a maintenance page. This often caused issues because the user would then try to refresh that page instead of remembering to return to the original page.”
Support renewals for the existing virtual appliances was cumbersome, too. “It was difficult for us to get the right support—we couldn’t just pay a fee to get unlimited coverage for all of our appliances, and we had to estimate the number of incidents we expected to have in the future,” says Ronconi.
With IPC supporting new franchises at the average rate of nearly 100 per month, network traffic and service demands are continually growing. To keep pace, the IT team decided to upgrade its Internet and firewalls connectivity. At that point, it realized it would soon outgrow the capacity of its existing virtual appliances and decided to replace them with a hardware-based solution.
IPC wanted to implement some of the advanced Application Delivery Controller (ADC) features that had been lacking, so the IT team evaluated Citrix hardware-based solutions alongside F5. It ultimately chose F5 for several reasons: F5’s unified BIG-IP platform, its extensible VIPRION chassis/blade-based hardware, flexible “Good, Better, Best” licensing model, and the programmability provided by the F5 iRules scripting language and built-in app deployment tools like iApps. “F5 is very customizable and gives us significant application flexibility that Citrix couldn’t provide,” says Potesta.
Another point in F5’s favor was its ability to provide reliable, in-depth product support through F5’s direct support channel and through its reseller partner community. Finally, F5’s close collaboration with leading vendors like VMware, Microsoft, and Cisco was a critical consideration since IPC wanted to future-proof its infrastructure and protect its investments.
Since deploying the F5 solution, IPC has streamlined and simplified both its IT infrastructure and operations and established a solid, scalable platform that will accommodate IPC’s future growth.
“One of the biggest advantages of the F5 solution is the unified and modular BIG-IP platform in combination with the VIPRION hardware,” says Potesta. “We don’t have to forklift hardware when we need added capacity; with VIPRION, we can just add blades whenever we need them. That flexibility is important in our business, where we often need to add capacity for a new web property on very short notice.” Another advantage of VIPRION is that added blades start working immediately without re-configuration, so users never experience disruptions or network downtime due to upgrades.
F5’s Good, Better, Best licensing model has solved the thorny licensing and support issues IPC had with its previous ADC solution. It also enables IPC to run multiple network and application delivery services on a single platform. “With ‘Best’ licensing, we have access to all the BIG-IP modules, and we have the flexibility to deploy them on our own timetable—when it makes sense for us,” says Potesta.
F5’s platform-based approach with its ScaleN distributed architecture will help IPC consolidate many of its existing solutions, further simplifying and streamlining the infrastructure. “Soon we’ll be deploying BIG-IP Access Policy Manager and Application Security Manager to replace Microsoft Threat Management Gateway, which is no longer supported,” says Potesta. “That’s just one example of how F5 is helping us eliminate multiple solutions, consolidate, and simplify. In the future, we’ll have fewer vendors and point products to manage—they’ll all be unified under F5.”
IPC finds the BIG-IP platform very easy to use and appreciates the uniqueness—and usefulness—of the built-in programmability and configuration tools. “The learning curve with F5 is significantly shorter,” says Potesta. “With F5’s GUI-based configuration utility, deployment tools like iApps, and the documentation and deployment guides it provides, we can assign tasks and projects to less experienced engineers, and they’re able to accomplish them with very little guidance.”
The value IPC places on F5 iRules can’t be overstated. “Tasks like URL redirection were so difficult and time consuming before, but iRules simplified that whole process,” says Morales. “With just one simple iRule, we can take care of all the URL redirection we need to do; we’re able to easily add new domains without changing anything else.”
Speaking specifically about F5’s built-in app deployment tools, Potesta adds, “I’ve never seen anything like iApps from any other vendor. It makes it so much easier to deploy applications—in many cases, it’s just a matter of selecting a simple checkbox.”
The IT team also appreciates BIG-IP Analytics, which provides detailed performance metrics such as transaction per second, request and response throughput, server latency, page load time, and more for web applications. “BIG-IP Analytics will make troubleshooting with our app developers easier and help us to resolve issues faster because we’re now able to see all of these performance metrics,” says Ronconi.
With F5, IPC no longer has to forego implementing advanced ADC features. All the high-level technical support IPC was missing with its previous vendor is now available through multiple channels, whether it’s F5’s onsite Professional Services, the DevCentral technical user community, or the detailed documentation and deployment guides F5 provides.
“The whole technical support structure around Citrix is far less mature than F5,” says Ronconi. “And there’s nothing like F5’s DevCentral; it’s a well-developed, mature technical community, and we can always find the resources we need to answer our questions and get help.”
F5’s strong collaboration with vendors like VMware is as critical to IPC today as it will be in the future. Potesta says, “Our entire infrastructure is built on VMware, so it gives us peace of mind knowing how closely F5 works with VMware to ensure that their solutions work together optimally.”
Ronconi speaks to the long-term significance of F5’s multi-vendor collaboration efforts. “F5 already supports several vendors’ software defined networking (SDN) and software defined data center (SDDC) initiatives, including VMware’s network virtualization and security platform (NSX) and Cisco Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI). Whether we choose to go with one of these or a different SDN architecture, we know that F5 is probably already working to support it. That gives us a great deal of flexibility and confidence in our ability to future-proof our infrastructure.”