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NAC: Can't Get No Satisfaction

Vendors prepare to shore up the shortcomings of network access control at RSA conference next week

At least a dozen vendors are planning to unveil new network access control (NAC) products at the RSA conference next week, and their views on the technology are as diverse as the logos on their booths. But there is one thing they all agree on:

NAC, as it stands today, has a lot of shortcomings.

Current NAC products begin to address the issue of policy-based access control for users and devices, but they don't do anything to monitor or control network traffic flows, notes Neal Hartsell, vice president of marketing at TippingPoint, which will be introducing its first NAC product at RSA.

Hartsell observes that NAC technology generally focuses on the end points, but that traffic flows coming in and out of the device can be IT's best clues to security problems. "Defining access only by user, without taking the network into account, is a big mistake," Hartsell says. TippingPoint plans to attack this problem by combining its NAC products with intrusion prevention systems that can detect potentially dangerous traffic.

Rob Ciampa, vice president of marketing and business strategy at Trusted Network Technologies, agrees that NAC's focus on user identity and authentication is too narrow. "Machine authentication and machine identity are almost as important as user identity," he says. Enterprises need a reliable way to ensure that a given machine is not infected and not being spoofed, and many NAC products don't do that, he observes.

In addition, most NAC products don't do much to restrict users' access after they enter the network, Ciampa notes. "We saw one enterprise where, after successful logon, the user had access to 55,000 machines," Ciampa says. "They may have protected themselves from malware, but they aren't doing anything about malicious users." TNT's Identity 3.0 helps solve this problem by strengthening access criteria to include machine identification, and by working with security tools from McAfee and Symantec to identify dangerous activity after the user has logged on.

Today's NAC products tend to be inflexible in the way they enforce policies, notes Mitchell Ashley, CTO and vice president of customer experience at StillSecure Inc., which will unveil its "Total NAC" product line next week. Many NAC products are built on IEEE 802.1x technology that isn't widely deployed, forcing the user into upgrading the network in order to take advantage of NAC.

Some NAC technology also doesn't scale well in large enterprises, Ashley observes. They support only one level of access, and they often can't support multi-user administrative access required in many large data centers or help desks, he says. StillSecure's "Total NAC" will address these problems by supporting large deployments with multiple levels of access, including 802.1x, DHCP, and VPNs.

Most current NAC products don't integrate with identity management tools already in place in many enterprises, according to Gord Boyce, global vice president of sales and marketing at ForeScout Technologies. NAC should combine its policy enforcement capabilities with emerging identity and rights management systems, he says. (See ID Management: A Matter of Entitlement.)

ForeScout will address this issue next week by announcing that its NAC technology has been integrated with Sun Microsystems' Java Access Manager and Java Identity Manager products.

Today's NAC products control access to the network, but they don't do much to control access to specific applications, according to NeoAccel, another NAC vendor. Some NAC products promise application-level control by using packet filtering to block traffic based on ports and protocols, but they don't disallow access to a specific application, the company observes.

To address this shortcoming, NeoAccel next week will launch NAM-Plus Gatekeeper 2.0, which lets companies whitelist or blacklist specific applications, enabling administrators to control whether or not specific user devices can run a given application.

While the vendors didn't all agree on which of NAC's shortcomings was the most critical, they all agreed that the technology needs significant work before it will be ready for widespread adoption.

"There's a lot of confusion about NAC, and it's largely been created by vendors who are making some very diverse claims," says StillSecure's Ashley. "But enterprises can only afford to roll out NAC once. They're doing their homework right now, and they aren't going to do large-scale deployments until they see those holes getting filled."

— Tim Wilson, Site Editor, Dark Reading

  • ForeScout Technologies Inc.
  • NeoAccel Inc.
  • Sun Microsystems Inc. (Nasdaq: SUNW)
  • <TippingPoint Technologies Inc.
  • Trusted Network Technologies Inc.

    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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