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1/19/2007
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Cisco's New Opportunity

IronPort acquisition could open up possibilities that go well beyond messaging security

As an analyst, I've found that the results of acquisitions are almost always disappointing. The acquired company is sky-high, flushed with impending wealth and visions of industry dominance with the resources of the larger company, while the acquiring company struts its stuff and positions the new company as a strategic new product line.

Then reality sets in. The new company disappears while its technology is retrofitted to integrate with the acquirer’s security management and UI schemes. Good, creative people become de-motivated and leave when they realize that they have become small fish in a big pond. After a year or two, the market has moved on, the exciting technology has fallen behind the competition, and the acquisition is considered a bust by all except those who authorized the deal.

Trust me on this one. I see it all the time. Is there anyone out there who really believes CipherTrust will thrive as part of Secure Computing? Has anyone seen Zone Labs lately?

Which brings us to Cisco's acquisition of IronPort earlier this month. One of the reasons I like this deal is that Cisco does a really good job with acquisitions. For one, it treats the people well and retains the top talent. It’s been years since the Okena purchase, and the core engineering talent for Cisco Security Agent is still together.

Perhaps the strongest indication of Cisco’s prowess is that the executive team for security — Bob Gleichauf, Richard Palmer, Mick Scully, and Jayshree Ullal — have all thrived after coming to Cisco via acquisition. That’s remarkable.

The other reason I like this deal is that IronPort positions Cisco to finally implement intelligence that can breathe life into its "Self Defending Network." Imagine an automated security infrastructure that does reputation scoring based on service provider traffic observations, enterprise network security overlays, and corporate networking equipment. This raises the bar way past server-based or network appliance-based approaches.

The secret sauce that could enable this sort of capability is IronPort’s SenderBase network, where proprietary algorithms build a reputation profile for everything that sends or receives an email. Imagine Cisco’s opportunity if it can find a way to apply IronPort’s reputation architecture to multiple applications for every IP address that talks on the network.

Solutions to security problems that require worldwide network visibility could be within Cisco’s reach. The possibilities include detection of phishing attacks, combating botnet command and control, catching malware as it phones home with personally identifiable information, and even securing social networking activity.

Networking behavior is rapidly changing, and network attacks are shifting from protocol anomalies (such as buffer overflows and malformed packets) to more effective social trickery and data theft. SenderBase may be just the springboard that Cisco needs for new products and new subscription-based security services to keep pace with the bad guys. It’s hard to imagine many other vendors that can unite service provider and enterprise security practices.

Cisco’s crystal ball has been pretty good about seeing into the future. Of course, when you have a $170 billion market cap, you have more than some say about what that future will be. Cisco can still screw it up. It's easy to think of IronPort as yet another security appliance that uses reputation scores to deflect spam at the network edge. But with proper execution and crafty new messaging, this relationship could be about much more than an email gateway.

Eric Ogren is a security analyst with Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG) Special to Dark Reading

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