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Cisco's Web Security Play

Acquisition of Reactivity could pave way to network-based solutions for Web 2.0, SOA

Cisco's acquisition of XML vendor Reactivity today could set the stage for a new approach in handling the Web services security problem, experts say.

Cisco announced its intent to acquire privately held Reactivity, a maker of specialized XML processing hardware, for $135 million this morning. On the surface, the deal looks like a simple play for the networking giant to incorporate Web services capabilities into its hardware lines, but security experts inside and outside Cisco say there may be more to it than that.

The Reactivity technology will eventually be built into the Cisco security architecture, so that application-to-application controls can be implemented along with user-to-application controls, says George Kurian, vice president and general manager for Cisco's Application Delivery unit.

"Let's take identity management as an example," Kurian says. "Identity management is one aspect of security that becomes a lot more complex in a Web services environment, because now you need a way to preserve the identities of both users and applications across different services. Reactivity already can interact with multiple identity management systems, and we [Cisco] are building a common structure for identity management in the network."

The merger of Cisco and Reactivity could make it easier for enterprises to build a common structure for Web services security in at the network level, rather than forcing application developers to resolve the security issues at the program level, experts say.

"The network is not only the best place, it's the only place for implementing SOA and Web services security," says Eric Ogren, an analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group. "Each application is responsible for its own share, but really only the network can see the whole context, which is as it should be. From that standpoint, especially in the virtualized data center, Reactivity and Cisco are in a good spot to make things happen."

But a hardware-only solution may not go far enough for some Web services implementers, notes Dimitri Sirota, a founder of Layer 7 Technologies, which offers Web services security hardware that competes with Reactivity and Datapower, the XML hardware vendor acquired last year by IBM.

"The hardware piece is important, but [Layer 7] also offers software to secure the end points and to deliver that last-mile piece that lets you authenticate and validate XML from end to end," Sirota says. "Some organizations want to build what amounts to an XML VPN, and you can't do that entirely in hardware."

Cisco has attacked the Web services market before, when it introduced its Application-Oriented Networking (AON) technology in 2005, Sirota observes. "At that time, we had a lot of concern about Cisco, but as it turned out, we didn't see much impact on our business," he recalls. "As long as Cisco continues to sell these solutions to the networking people in the enterprise, they won't have much impact on our customers, which are mostly on the applications side."

Reactivity, Cisco, Layer 7, and Datapower are all attacking the same problem, which is that most application developers don't know how to build security into their programs. "There is a threat of external attacks, and we're addressing that, but in Web services, there's a more important threat, which are security problems caused inadvertently by misprogramming," says Sirota. Poorly structured applications and data can cause buffer overflows and damage to other applications in Web services, but products such as Reactivity's and Layer 7's act as a intermediary to validate and secure XML transactions before they happen, he says.

But external attacks are increasing as Web services becomes more prevalent, Kurian notes. "We are seeing infrastructure attacks, such as denial of service, that affect application performance. We're also seeing application attacks, in which the attacker tries to manipulate the content of the data or infect it with a virus. And there's a very real threat of XML spoofing, in which the identity of the service requestor is spoofed and the attacker hijacks the session."

Kurian could not say for sure when users will begin to see integrated security tools from Cisco and Reactivity. "But we'll be moving quickly," he says. "We think security will be the lead capability customers are looking for as they look at Web services solutions."

— Tim Wilson, Site Editor, Dark Reading

  • Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO)
  • DataPower Technology Inc.
  • Layer 7 Technologies Inc.
  • Reactivity Inc. }
  • IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM)

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