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Is NAC Dying?

Frustrated with complexity and cost, many enterprises are retrenching their NAC strategies

NEW YORK -- Interop -- Last year, here at this major networking conference, network access control (NAC) was the new black. Dozens of NAC vendors hawked products from their booths, and a major NAC interoperability demonstration was one of the centerpieces of the event. (See Vendors Get the NAC, But Will Users?.)

This year, NAC is not gone and not forgotten -- but at least to those who walk the show floor, it's definitely less evident.

"NAC is still a part of enterprises' strategies, it's still important," says Josh Corman, host protection architect for IBM's Internet Security Systems unit. "But there are some issues with it that are hard to get around."

Those issues, in a nutshell, are cost, complexity, and vulnerabilities, experts say. While enterprises are intrigued by the notion of vetting users and devices before allowing them onto the network, they are still struggling with a wide array of products and functionality, time-consuming implementations -- and researchers who keep finding ways to beat NAC defenses.

TheInfoPro (TIP), an independent research organization based here, tomorrow will release a new study, which reports that the number of enterprises using NAC has actually declined over the past 18 months, from 35 percent in early 2006 to 26 percent today. During this same period, the number of organizations that do not plan to implement NAC has risen from 21 percent to 24 percent, the research organization says.

"Enterprises considering implementation of NAC technologies are struggling to both deal with complexities and the differences between [Cisco's] Network Admission Control as it was originally conceived and subsequent NAC solutions being made available from numerous suppliers," said Bill Trussell, TIP's managing director of information security research.

"In addition, many organizations feel that NAC has not lived up to its promises and have become frustrated with the lack of ROI," Trussell says. "[This is] causing them to significantly modify or delay their implementation plans until the networking security solution providers are able to prove that their solutions represent a more mature technology."

A study published earlier this month by Applied Research West confirms that enterprises are retrenching their strategies for NAC. For example, use of the technology to authenticate guests and partners -- one of the original purposes touted for NAC -- is only occurring in 27 percent of enterprises, according to the study. (See Obstacles Nick NAC, But Growth Continues.)

Unlike the TIP study, which blames market confusion for the downplay of NAC technology in the enterprise, the Applied Research West study suggests that problems with cost and complexity of integration are the chief reasons why companies are avoiding NAC deployment.

However, the Applied Research West study -- as well as most of the vendors on the show floor here -- refuted the notion that NAC deployment is shrinking.

"We are seeing a lot of interest in our technology for guest access, which is still a high priority," says Stacey Lum, president and CEO of NAC vendor InfoExpress. "There is a lot of interest in getting something in place right away, particularly at the client level." The Applied Research West study found that 70 percent of enterprises have either deployed NAC or plan to in the next 12 months.

But no matter whether its use is growing or shrinking, NAC technology -- at least as it stands today -- has some significant vulnerabilities, researchers say. Corman pointed out that most NAC solutions are designed only to find out whether a client device has installed a particular security defense -- such as antivirus software -- but doesn't necessarily ensure that the client is free of custom malware or zero-day exploits.

"It's checking for static solutions, but security right now is really a dynamic problem," he observes.

Other researchers have also poked holes in NAC, demonstrating proofs of concept that show how the technology can be fooled into thinking that an infected client is danger-free. (See Researchers Break Down NAC Defenses and Cisco's NAC Gets Hacked.)

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Tim Wilson is Editor in Chief and co-founder of Dark Reading.com, UBM Tech's online community for information security professionals. He is responsible for managing the site, assigning and editing content, and writing breaking news stories. Wilson has been recognized as one ... View Full Bio

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