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Intel's embedded security strategy faces tech obstacles

Security vendors react to blockbuster deal

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Security vendors have welcomed Intel's $7.7bn acquisition of McAfee as confirmation of the importance of security in the future of computing but warned plans to embed security in chips will pose difficult technical challenges and may upset existing partners.

Intel's blockbuster deal follows Symantec’s recent acquisition of PGP, IBM’s purchase of BigFix and most recently HP’s acquisition of application security firm Fortify. Platform vendors are buying security firms while the industry undergoes one of its most rapid phases of consolidation to date.

Pat Clawson, chief of endpoint security provider Lumension, said Intel's arch-rival AMD will need to consider whether it needs to mirror the acquisition, which is likely to send shock waves across the market.

"For the security industry, it makes the top layer of the security stack – such as Symantec – obvious acquisition targets not only for chip manufacturers but also hardware providers, such as mobile device manufacturers," Clawson said. "On the flip side, it could leave a wasteland of security companies as mid-sized security companies see a diminishing number of prospective acquirers."

The chip giant already markets secure virtualisation and secure XML gateway products, so it is not a complete stranger to the security market.

Intel wants to use the McAfee acquisition to make security a pillar of next-generation computing and to embed security in a much greater range of devices - everything from smartphones to TVs and cash machines. Executing this plan will not be without difficulties, security vendors warn.

“There are a lot of things wrong with today's anti-virus model such as tracking the sheer number of potential bad types of software," said Ron Gula, chief exec of Tenable Network Security. "Putting this into hardware may sound promising, but I question how much can be placed into a chip.

“If Intel can move the anti-virus agent into hardware, I'd like some assurances that this can be patched when a security vulnerability is found with it. Anti-virus software is very complex and we often run into customers whose agents are one or two patch levels behind and open to attack. Patching hardware or firmware is much harder than patching software.”

Intel hopes to develop security products for a wide range of devices, including smartphones, cash machines and even cars. Simply re-engineering existing desktop software is not enough, according to one mobile security expert.

"Defending an increasingly device-dominated internet has been used as a key rationalization for the deal – but smart device security is a highly specialized space, talent is scarce, and the combined company will need to substantially beef up its credentials in this area," commented Adrian Turner, chief exec of mobile security firm Mocana, a development partner of Symantec.

"The device-dominated internet will be fundamentally different from the PC security model familiar to both companies. It requires an entirely different philosophical and architectural approach – it can’t just be built on top of existing PC antivirus software," he added.

Rich Mogull of industry analysts Securosis said that Symantec, EMC/RSA, and other security vendors are likely to aggressively fight any integration of security and silicon, forcing Intel to keep the platform open to competitors. ®

SANS - Survey on application security programs

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