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Interop Brings Big NAC Attack

Network access control is on a roll. Here's a quick market overview and a roundup of newly-announced products

LAS VEGAS -- After simmering quietly on the back burner for the past few years, Network Access Control (NAC) technology is this year's hot security dish at the Interop show here.

NAC is fast becoming the hot technology. For the past few years, it's been simmering at the edges, but with more pushes into integration, more published standards from groups like the Trusted Computing Group , and more pilots being tested, you’re bound to hear about it.

NAC, which helps enterprises automatically limit network access based on the identity and characteristics of a particular device, dates back to the days of directory-enabled networks. First-generation NAC products were limited to host firewalling and centralized command and control. Today, however, NAC products can collect a variety of information -- including host status, user authentication, and device location -- to determine the applicable access policy. NAC systems can ask questions such as "Who are you?" and "What is your condition?" and then use the answers to allow access to some parts of the network, while restricting others.

Up to now, NAC has received a lukewarm welcome from IT managers, because it puts a heavy load on technical staff who must administer the access policies and determine how they should be applied. Many IT organizations would like to shift that administrative function to business managers and department heads, who are in a better position to determine which systems a user might need to access.

NAC technology remains complex, but as standards emerge from Trusted Computing Group and other industry organizations, users are climbing on board. In fact, research firm Infonetics Research Inc. predicts that the NAC market will grow from $323 million in 2005 to $3.9 billion in 2008. Such growth would be remarkable, given the high cost and complexity of current NAC technology, but clearly, it is a hot market -- and a hot topic at the Interop conference this week.

NAC at the show
After laying low on the NAC front, Extreme Networks Inc. (Nasdaq: EXTR) is demonstrating a product that plays to its strengths in network hardware. Like other infrastructure vendors such as Enterasys Networks Inc. (NYSE: ETS) and Nortel Networks Ltd. (NYSE/Toronto: NT), Extreme offers network-wide policy enforcement through its routing/switching platform running ExtremeXOS. To fill in the policy gaps that aren't covered in ExtremeXOS, the switch vendor is partnering with IBM Internet Security Systems for intrusion detection and prevention, with StillSecure for host assessment and policy, and CipherOptics Inc. for VPN encryption.

Extreme's network architecture ties all of this functionality together within the NAC product line while ensuring high availability. For example, instead of inserting an in-line IDS/IPS that can fail and halt traffic, the ExtremeXOS solution moves the traffic over the switch fabric to be analyzed by the IDS, and then cuts offending hosts off at the port.

To achieve its full potential, Extreme's NAC strategy requires an end-to-end Extreme switch network, but as the industry gravitates toward standards, it could become an important player.

Enterasys is making its NAC presence felt at Interop with the unveiling of its new Sentinel product, as well as partnerships with Lockdown Networks Inc. and Q1 Labs Inc. Sentinel is an agentless host assessment engine that reports on a host’s condition and, after checking other data points such as user authentication and location, applies an access policy on a host.

Enterasys's products work well with other vendors' hardware for NAC command and control via 802.1x or SNMP. Dragon, Enterasys’s IDS, can reconfigure the network if it detects that a host has been infected and is acting badly.

So far, Enterasys is focusing on LAN-connected hosts and doesn’t have a solution for IPSec or SSL VPN-connected users. If the company hopes to compete with the likes of Nortel and Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO), it will have to fill that hole.

One of the oldest NAC appliance vendors, InfoExpress Inc. , is demonstrating its product line, which uses a technology called Dynamic NAC (DNAC). DNAC is a peer-to-peer-style solution, where clients essentially use a man-in-the-middle attack to force unknown hosts on the LAN to route through a DNAC peer via ARP spoofing.

ARP spoofing tricks the target host into thinking the DNAC client is the router and tricks the router into thinking the DNAC client is the host. If an unknown host is validated by InfoExpress's CyberGatekeeper, the DNAC client releases it to run on the network. If the unknown host is not authorized, it still routes through the DNAC host until it can be remediated or until some other policy can be applied.

The InfoExpress technology might work well for small and medium-sized businesses -- it goes in a direction opposite to enterprise technologies that focus on network-centric or host-centric policy enforcement.

At Interop, Lockdown Networks is demonstrating its integration with Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT)'s Network Access Protection (NAP) technology, as well as enhancements to to its EnforcerT NAC appliance. Lockdown has added a "guest registration" capability that lets guest users identify themselves before being granted access to the network. The company has added support for infrastructure products from Cisco, Extreme, Nortel, Allied Telesyn International Inc. , and Foundry Networks Inc. (Nasdaq: FDRY). Lockdown also has unveiled a rarity in the NAC market: a MacOSX agent.

Lockdown's strategy is similar to the traditional infrastructure vendors'. Lockdown hasn't penetrated the enterprise market as deeply as competitors such as Check Point Software Technologies Ltd. (Nasdaq: CHKP) or Symantec Corp. (Nasdaq: SYMC), but if it provides the right authorization and validation services, it could make some hay.

Nortel, like Extreme and Enterasys, is focusing on policy enforcement in the network, not the host, and is partnering with other vendors to fill in missing components such as host validation, authentication, and other support technologies. Nortel also has integrated its NAC technology with its widely deployed VPN Router, allowing it to reach out to remote hosts. Going forward, Nortel has hitched its wagon to Microsoft’s NAP initiative, which might not be such a great idea, given Microsoft's history in security. Remember when everyone thought Microsoft’s VPN initiatives in Windows 2000 would kill the market? NAP still has a long way to go.

Like InfoExpress, Nortel was an early innovator in host validation with the TunnelGuard technology in its IPSec VPN client. Early implementations of TunnelGuard were difficult to use, but ease of use has improved over time. The big question is how dedicated Nortel is to standards. It participates in the Trusted Computing Group's Trusted Network Connect working group -- the NAC people -- but its solutions aren’t TNC-conformant. It seems as if even Nortel is waiting to see how the market will shake out.

— Mike Fratto, Editor at Large, Dark Reading

Mike Fratto is a principal analyst at Current Analysis, covering the Enterprise Networking and Data Center Technology markets. Prior to that, Mike was with UBM Tech for 15 years, and served as editor of Network Computing. He was also lead analyst for InformationWeek Analytics ... View Full Bio

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