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06:05 AM

Upstart Vendors Question Everything

New technologies rethink the way today's security products work

2:05 PM -- It's a funny thing about technology: Even with all of the constant innovation that goes on, it's easy to become accustomed to the limitations of current products. Firewalls, anti-spam software, mobile device security -- none of them work very well, but there's nothing to be done about it, right?

Wrong, according to a new crop of vendors that have been shaking up their respective markets in recent weeks. While many startups look to improve or add onto existing technology, these vendors are actually rethinking the security problems users face -- and the way traditional products work.

Take, for example, Abaca Technology Corp., a little company that wasn't satisfied with the traditional blacklist/whitelist approach to spam control. Rather than fighting the whole question of content filtering and text searches, Abaca has developed a totally different premise: that spam gravitates to certain users, while leaving others alone. Using that premise, Abaca this week at Interop New York demonstrated an algorithm that it guarantees will block 99 percent of spam. (See Startup Unveils Reputation-Based Spam Fighter.)

Another company, Palo Alto Networks, is also demonstrating at Interop a product that questions conventional wisdom. Palo Alto's PA-4000 firewall, which was developed by some of the same people who invented the original firewall, controls access at the application and data levels, not just at the port level.

"Instead of just assuming that the firewall has limitations, and trying to work around them, we should be trying to make a better firewall," says Palo Alto exec Steve Mullaney. "If you were to build a firewall today, knowing what we know now about the nature of traffic and the limitations of firewalls, what would it look like? That's the whole idea behind our company." (See Startup Puts New Spin on Firewalls.)

In the world of authentication, enterprises have been working around the limitations of digital signatures for more than a decade. The technology required a special client, and each document could support only one signature. Many enterprises have simply given up on the technology, resorting to handwritten signatures and fax machines. (See Upstart Takes New Tack on Digital Signatures.)

Some IT people at Pfizer Inc., the pharmaceutical giant, decided that none of the off-the-shelf digital signature tools were worth a bottle of ink, so they developed a tool themselves. And now TriCipher Inc. is bringing that technology to the rest of the market, paving the way for a new try at the digital signature process.

But you don't have to be a startup to rethink old ideas. Alcatel-Lucent this week at Interop New York is demonstrating its technology for securing and managing remote laptops, no matter where they are or whether they are powered up. The PCMCIA card essentially protects the laptop without requiring the user to modify his or her hardware or the applications he or she uses. And Sprint is now distributing the card as part of its mobile broadband service. (See Sprint Adds Laptop Security to Mobile Broadband.)

These technologies are very different, but they have one thing in common: They break the rules on how a problem has traditionally been solved. Rather than taking an existing product and asking how to make it better, these innovators started with the problem, and then developed a solution from scratch.

Will all of these products work? Will they change their respective marketplaces? Hard to say. Many good ideas have died on the vine, starved for funding or marketing expertise. And many inventors overlook practical realities when they try to create a better mousetrap.

Whatever happens with these products, though, you have to give their developers some points for trying. They're questioning the conventional wisdom -- and that's the first step in creating real change.

— Tim Wilson, Site Editor, Dark Reading

  • Abaca Technology Corp.
  • Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE: ALU)
  • Palo Alto Networks Inc.
  • TriCipher Inc.

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