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IETF Trains Its Sights On NAC

Cisco, Juniper, Microsoft, and TCG join working group to develop protocol for endpoint security

After more than a year of following their own paths on network access control (NAC), the major security players have quietly formed a group that will develop a NAC protocol to work across all vendor platforms.

The Network Endpoint Assessment (NEA) Working Group, part of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), met for the first time in November and hopes to complete a requirements document during the first half of 2007. The requirements document will lead to proposals for an industry-wide protocol for communications between a client device ("endpoint") and a security policy server, regardless of which vendors make the two devices.

The formation of the group is a major leap forward for NAC, which promises a way to ensure that all client devices meet specific security requirements before they are allowed to log onto a server or network. Although most enterprises say they plan to deploy NAC in order to protect themselves from client-based attacks and leaks, many security organizations also say they are confused by the disparity of NAC technologies offered by industry leaders such as Cisco, Juniper, Microsoft, and the Trusted Computing Group.

The NEA protocol would not resolve all of those disparities, but it would give NAC systems a common language, much as SMTP allowed IP-based email systems to trade messages, or the way that SNMP allowed network and systems management systems to exchange critical troubleshooting information.

"NAC requires a range of systems to work together, including policy servers, network access devices, operating systems, and client devices," says Steve Hanna, distinguished engineer at Juniper Networks, who co-chairs both the new NEA group and the TCG's Trusted Network Connect standard group. "There are some vendors that offer a lot of these pieces, but no one vendor offers all of them. NAC, then, is one area where industry standards are absolutely essential."

Until the formation of the NEA group, there were no clear winners in the NAC standards race. Cisco and Microsoft partnered earlier this year to harmonize Cisco Network Access Control (NAC) and Microsoft Network Access Protection (NAP). (See Analysis: Network Access Control.) But Cisco does not support the TCG's Trusted Network Connect (TNC), which has been positioned by Juniper, Symantec and others as the NAC standard. See Vendors Get the NAC, But Will Users?.)

"Cisco is not a member of the TCG, and we don't have any plans to join in the near future," says Russell Rice, director of marketing for Cisco NAC. "We've always worked through the IETF for these standards, partly because we like the open forum. That's why we're participating in the NEA."

In fact, Cisco is not just participating in the NEA -- one of its executives, Susan Thomson, is the co-chair. In Hanna and Thomson, the NEA has executives from archrivals Juniper and Cisco working side by side -- a good sign that the standard has the backing it needs to become an industry-wide specification. Microsoft officials are also participating in the group's meetings and message boards.

The 70 members of the TCG's TNC group are also looking closely at the NEA's work, and many of them are already participating, Hanna says.

Asked what the protocol will look like or how long it will take to develop, NEA officials wouldn't venture a guess. "There's just no way to know yet -- it's too early," says Thomson.

"A lot will depend on how close the final standard is to the technologies that are out there now," says Rice, who acknowledges that vendors are always happiest when a standard comes close to their existing technologies.

The vendors recognize that there is a growing demand for NAC, and the pressure to develop workable standards for the technology is great. But the IETF and other standards groups have tried rushing standards before, sometimes with unwelcome results, Rice observes.

Hanna concurs. "We don't want to go too fast and take the cake out of the oven before it's really baked," says Hanna. "But having said that, users should know -- we're hungry, too."

— Tim Wilson, Site Editor, Dark Reading

  • Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO)
  • Juniper Networks Inc. (Nasdaq: JNPR)
  • Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT)
  • Trusted Computing Group
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