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Another look at Cisco's network security strategy

We put Cisco’s security strategy under the microscope about six weeks ago after hearing from many, many networking pros who felt Cisco had lost its way, at least a little.  I think Cisco was hearing that message a little bit as well, because it focused heavily on its network security business this week with its latest round of Borderless Networks news. I received two separate briefings for this latest Cisco news cycle. The first briefing was a straightforward update on the various Borderless Networks products: the routers, switches, firewalls and software that make up the soup-to-nuts product portfolio.

The other briefing was strictly about Cisco’s security business. It was a WebEx panel led by Cisco’s security technology chief Tom Gillis and a coterie of marketing and product management folks. Unlike the first briefing, which was a one-on-one affair, this one was open to an unknown number of reporters and analysts who dialed in or made the trip to California to be there in person.

Gillis used this event to lay out Cisco’s current game plan for network security. The details of this talk didn’t make it into my Borderless Networks story this week, so I thought I’d lay out some of the basics here.

First, Gillis reviewed the state of Cisco’s security play. The company has an impressive footprint.

  • Cisco earned $2.2 billion in security revenue in its 2010 fiscal year, which represented a 14.5% growth rate over the previous year.
  • Cisco has 150 million VPN endpoint clients installed globally, and about 33% of them are the company’s new AnyConnect Secure Mobility client, a hybrid VPN/802.1X product.
  • Cisco’s Security Intelligence Operations (SIO) center, the company’s threat and vulnerability analysis lab, processes 20 billion URLs per day and has more than 500 security researches, analysts and rule writers distributed across the world.

Next, Cisco dug into the details for the biggest security piece to come out of this week’s news: The Adaptive Security Appliance (ASA) 5585-X. This firewall/IPS/VPN gateway box is Cisco’s first attempt to offer a product with the scalability and power to compete with the data-center class versions of Juniper Networks’ SRX platform.

In the past networking pros have told me that the ASA 5500 series is a decent product that lacks the firepower and scalability for high-end data centers. Cisco hopes the 5585-X answers those critics.  Although the Cisco folks didn’t name the SRX or Juniper during this briefing, they did keep referring to vendor “J,” whose product’s specs bore an uncanny resemblance to the SRX3600.

The 5585-X comes in a 2 RU format (about 40% of the size of SRX boxes with similar specs) and offers 20 Gbps of simultaneous firewall and IPS throughput, 350,000 new connections per second and 8 million total connections. Cisco also said it draws less power than the vendor “J” product (785 watts to 1,750 watts).

The ASA 5585-X should give enterprises the ability to scale up the number of AnyConnect clients they deploy. AnyConnect is a hybrid of a IPsec VPN and SSL VPN client and a 802.11X supplicant. Cisco says it can run on pretty much any device and enable enterprises to provide secure network access to employees, partners and suppliers, regardless of what device they are on and where they are. Since 33% of Cisco’s VPN client footprint has already upgraded to this product, which was released earlier this year, customers should already be discovering for themselves whether AnyConnect is truly able to provide them with an open yet secure network.

Cisco has focused its marketing efforts on a broad range of new markets in recent years (telepresence, Flip video cameras, smart grid technology, and servers), leading some networking pros to question its commitment to its bread and butter markets like routing, switching and security. This week proved to me that Cisco is at least listening to those customers who are worried.

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