Intel swallows McAfee: Why?

The three Ss: security, security, security

Protecting against web application threats using SSL

In its biggest acquisition ever, Intel has pledged to spend $7.6bn for security firm McAfee in a bid to add security to its portfolio of mostly chippy stuff. There are lots of stories all over webdom covering this, including the Reg's own from John Leyden. A CRN think piece discusses more background and talks about how Intel and McAfee have been working together for nearly two years on more closely integrating security and hardware.

Most of our reader comments to our story were along the lines of, “WTF?” “Why?” and my favorite, “First of all, why? Secondly, seriously, why?” Here’s my quick attempt at answering both the “WTF” and “Why” questions.

First of all, security is a big deal. Anyone reading this already knows how important security is – and how bad security leads to bad, bad things from a technical and business perspective.

The second point is that we’re seeing an exponential rise in network-connected stuff: one McAfee rep said that they’ve seen data pointing to 50 billion network-enabled devices in the next few years. That means 50 billion potential security holes for malcontents and Russian Mafioso types to exploit.

Threats are also rising exponentially – according to McAfee, it's seen three times more exploits and security threats so far this year than in the previous three years combined.

I also think we can agree that hardware-based security or hardware-assisted security is definitely faster than software-only solutions. One of the things that many posters have bitched about is how security software slows down their systems. I’ve found that this is true no matter what security package is used; it’s just the problem you’re going to get with a strictly software-based security solution.

So we have established that three things are in play here: security is getting more important, and threats are rising; more and more devices need to be secured; and hardware-based security is a good thing.

Intel sees the same things and, from what I’m hearing, it now considers security a key pillar in the future of computing and network devices. If that’s the case, then – being Intel – it needs to take a broad look at security and figure out the best way to make a business out of it. Looking at it from this angle, I see four big-picture reasons why Intel is buying McAfee. I’m putting them in a numbered list for your reading convenience – these aren’t in any particular order:

1. McAfee has invested a lot in putting together what I see as the most proactive security organization in the business. Its Global Threat Intelligence lab constantly looks for new and/or improved exploits, and quickly develops fixes that are deployed to its customers before they get hit. Most other security vendors try to be proactive, but they don’t put the emphasis on it or the resources behind it that McAfee does. For Intel, this is an attractive asset, as it gives it a foundation to build on.

2. McAfee is pushing out to the cloud with its Cloud Secure security products and certification program (McAfee description here, news story here).

Perhaps the biggest hurdle to cloud adoption with real-world customers is their doubts about how safe their data is in the cloud. Intel has a major interest in clouds, and being a key cloud security player gives it the ability to sell more products to cloud providers and get a bigger share of the deals.

3. In the near term, there are a lot of product-based things that a combined Intel-McAfee could roll out. I can see a security-enabled chipset for server or PC motherboards as a definite possibility down the road. This could give Intel a shot at establishing a standard, and licensing it to partners and competitors alike.

4. Sooner still, I can see a joint network appliance – probably aimed at small business – that acts as a security Swiss Army knife. It would be a gateway type box that monitors and manages all internal and external networking, combining a firewall with anti-virus, anti-spam, and a host of other functions. It could also monitor what documents are sent out of the organization to ensure that valuable things like product plans and customer lists aren’t being emailed or FTP’d out of the firm.

There are products like this in the market now, but Intel can add value in a variety of ways. It can jack up the performance or, with its manufacturing prowess and scale, drop the cost significantly.

This transaction isn’t about cost-cutting. It also isn’t about Intel just looking for a piece of the security pie. I see it as additive, giving Intel a solid presence in a part of the market that will continue to grow in terms of importance and spending.

I don’t see any reason why Intel would do anything to change how McAfee is currently doing business. According to both Intel and McAfee, it’s going to be business as usual for McAfee – it’ll continue to support and develop all of its existing products and stay on its current roadmap.

What will change, I think, is that there will soon be a lot of new additions to that roadmap as Intel and McAfee explore the possibilities of their new union. ®

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