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Security Software's New Form Factor: Free

Emerging vendors find viral marketing works very well in security arena
Getting approval to purchase security technology that costs tens of thousands of dollars -- or much more -- is like pulling teeth from a tiger. But what if that new technology were free?

Several vendors have begun asking that very question, and the results are starting to show across security departments around the globe. Taking a page from their predecessors in the open-source community, these vendors have developed a simple strategy: If you give it away, they will come.

"If you really want to build something en masse -- to become the fabric of users' networks -- you need to have a product that works, and make it available so that everyone can use it," says Michael Baum, chief corporate and business development officer and co-founder of Splunk, perhaps the best-known security vendor to take the freeware leap.

Baum and his co-founders believed they had a product that worked better than the existing base of security management software tools -- one that worked simply, was quick to install, and didn't take a lot of integration work. With those features in mind, they decided to take a leap of faith and simply give away a limited-memory version of the product, hoping some users would choose to upgrade to the paid enterprise product.

That was two years ago. Since then, Splunk has distributed "a couple hundred thousand" copies of its software, which has led to the signing of some 1,100 customers of its enterprise version, Baum says. And despite the economy, the past four quarters have all set new financial records for the company.

But Splunk isn't the only company taking the "viral marketing" path. NetWitness, an established company that sells security diagnostics tools, last year released its PBBB product as freeware, offering a fully functional product that arguably works better and is better-supported than its open-source counterparts. The company has distributed more than 15,000 copies so far.

"One of the problems in security is that nuance is very important in products, but all of the vendors are marketing them using terms that are so broad it's hard to differentiate between them," says Amit Yoran, CEO and founder of NetWitness. "You can only scale so far by sending in a salesperson and trying to schedule a demo with somebody who has the authority to make a purchase. But if they already have the product, you don't have to do a demo. In fact, sometimes it's the customer that calls us."

One startup company, Immunet, is actually building its entire business model around the concept of free security software. Immunet's anti-malware offering is a "community-based" package that collects data about infections in all machines that run it. If one of those machines becomes infected with a new exploit, then Immunet develops a fix and automatically inoculates all of the devices running the software.

"Every time someone in this collective community encounters a threat, everyone else in the community gains protection from that same threat in real time," says Immunet founder Oliver Friedrichs. "You no longer have to rely on the isolated security of your current antivirus vendor. You will be able to protect your friends and family while being better protected yourself."

By giving out its software for free, Immunet actually improves the efficiency of its package, while increasing its "customer" base at the same time. "The more users that have it, the better the protection will be," Friedrichs says.

While the idea of building an entire line of business around free security software is still relatively new, many vendors are launching free security utilities as a part of their day-to-day business. Just this week, AVG launched a tool called LinkScanner, which detects malicious links hiding under URL-shortened disguises.

Will there be more security companies entering the market with free tools? Many experts expect so.

"It's not for every [vendor] -- it takes a certain type of organization to make that leap of faith," Splunk's Baum says. "But if you have a disruptive product, a disruptive distribution strategy makes a lot of sense."

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