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Partner Perspectives

The Performance Penalties of Bloatware-Based Next-Gen Firewalls

Why some organizations turn off critical security features to maintain network QoS.

At last month’s Oracle OpenWorld 2014, Intel president Renee James spoke of the need to eliminate the “performance penalties” of today’s most urgently needed applications and services. Oftentimes, such penalties result from the practice of bolting new hardware or software onto legacy solutions to address new issues. A “bloatware” effect emerges, where the new unwieldy solutions take their toll on an enterprise in the form of management complexity and performance degradation.

Two recent studies suggest that in the critical area of next-generation firewalls, some firewall designs inflict performance penalties so pronounced that organizations resort to turning key security features off. The features are the incremental next-generation capabilities that allow firewall product-marketing departments to keep up with the latest craze, and supposedly move firewalls past the basics of deny/allow. Essentially, those next-gen firewall features are now relegated back to what they were originally -- or even worse, shelfware. Sadly, this also makes an organization look silly: If all the features need to be turned off to maintain performance, why was the investment made in the first place?

The first study, a July 2014 Spiceworks survey of 504 IT professionals, found that more than one-third of respondents admit to turning off advanced firewall features found to be slowing their networks’ performance. The report showed network administrators are most likely to disable deep packet inspection (31%), anti-spam (29%), VPN (28%), data filtering (28%), and antivirus (28%) features to address impeded performance. 

An October report from product-testing firm Miercom provides a clue as to why IT professionals are turning off their security protection. Miercom found a 35% industry average performance loss when deep packet inspection (DPI) is turned on, and a 75% industry average performance loss when DPI, antivirus, and application control is turned on. 

A key component of today’s next-generation firewalls, DPI plays the critical role of detecting malicious activity within regular network traffic and preventing intrusions by blocking offending traffic automatically, before damage occurs. Disarming DPI removes a critical component of an organization’s network security. 

Needless to say, these findings are unsettling, given the good intentions and budgets IT teams put into next-generation firewalls as cornerstone products of their security strategies.

Why do people hobble their next-gen firewalls?

The Spiceworks survey specifically cites the inability of next-generation firewalls to properly cluster and share network traffic loads. We attribute this failure to the fact that many of today’s next-gen firewalls have been built on legacy firewall software designs, which lack the ability to cluster in the way organizations require for today’s enterprise needs.

These firewalls have been updated for next-gen functionality, but the layer upon layer of services and features have bloated their presence on the network to the point that they weigh down the performance of the networks they support. 

There is hope. Not all products use an old-fashioned design or exhibit the same performance penalties. Implementations experiencing lower levels of degradation tend to be developed based on newer product designs built specifically for today’s robust and demanding network environments. Rather than bolting on new components to older solutions, these best performers are built from the ground up to optimize hardware and software to support both security and performance. 

Such designs nurture higher firewall throughputs through the ability to cluster multiple units. The additional nodes these clusters provide can dramatically increase a system’s ability to handle high volumes of traffic while inspecting and investigating it, without affecting the user experience. 

Upgrading existing legacy systems is, of course, a cost-effective practice that can yield value. But when performance penalties are as profound as those uncovered by Miercom, and the forced choice between security and performance so inescapable as evidenced by the Spiceworks survey, it’s difficult to find a silver lining when the end result is making your enterprise more vulnerable. 

Theory vs. practice

For next-generation firewalls to truly deliver on their network security potential, companies need to look beyond data-sheet theory to practical run-time performance. Most firewalls can give you similar features. Challenge yourself and your vendors to show you performance of security features in practice. As security leaders, we need to build our network security defenses on solutions optimized for performance in the enterprise environments of today, not the artificial and theoretical demands of a vendor’s lab. Failing to do so puts the necessities of app functionality and network performance at odds with the necessity of protecting the product of that functionality -- network traffic: a situation no organization should have to face.

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