Microsoft struts into Net security market

Would you buy a firewall from Bill?

Microsoft leapt into the network security market this week with the Valentine's Day introduction of its Internet Security and Acceleration (ISA) Server -- a network firewall that will compete in the same arena as Check Point's FireWall-1 and Network Associates' Gauntlet.

ISA Server includes integrated intrusion detection and Web proxying, among other features. The company says the firewall survived hacker penetration tests, and performed reliably in a public beta period that began last June. According to a Microsoft technical report, ISA Server even protects the company's corporate network, which handles a whopping forty thousand client computers accessing over forty million Internet URLs every day.

Of course, that last part would be more impressive had Microsoft's corporate network not suffered a widely publicized intrusion last October. Then, earlier this month, the software giant got another security black eye when a distributed denial of service attack knocked its Web properties offline and it had to go running to Akamai for succor. And this week saw the Kournikova e-mail virus sweep through Windows machines, while Web vandals gleefully defaced the New York Times, Intel, Compaq and other sites by exploiting security holes in Microsoft's IIS Web server.

Perhaps aware that the company name isn't synonymous with security, Microsoft issued a separate press release Wednesday just to tout its firewall's ICSA Labs certification, quoting Joel Scambray, co-author of "Hacking Exposed" and managing partner of Foundstone Inc., on the importance of the industry nod. "Certification is a gateway feature for many companies considering a firewall," said Scambray, "and now ISA Server has entered that select club."

But that select club counts forty-five other firewall products as card-carrying members. In a field with so many entrenched players, will Microsoft's spotty security reputation dog its efforts to sell network security software? "It's sort of an unfair allegation," says Chris Christiansen, an analyst at International Data Corporation (ODC). "[Microsoft] ISA is built from the ground up as a security product....I imagine it's not going to face the fate of other general purpose products that weren't really designed with security in mind."

Christiansen says he expects users who stay on top of the latest updates to find ISA Server "relatively secure." Generally, he sees the product selling well to small and medium sized companies, and as an adjunct to Windows 2000, but doubts that it'll displace the industry leader in large enterprises. "I don't think Checkpoint's too worried about Microsoft," says Christiansen.

And if security issues do emerge in ISA Server, as they have in competing firewalls, we'll all hear about it quickly enough. "Unfortunately for Microsoft, its vulnerabilities are going to be exposed to a far greater degree in terms of publicity and press coverage than those of its competitors," says Christiansen. "Microsoft and its products are the largest targets in the world."

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