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Users anticipate joint Cisco and Microsoft security

Users are keen on checking out Microsoft and Cisco's interoperable security architecture outlined this week by both companies. When it comes to enterprise security, however, Cisco still gets more respect from IT shops.

IT managers said they are eager to see how Cisco Systems' Network Access Control and Microsoft's Network Access Protection will work together when the two companies launch a limited beta program of their interoperable security architecture in the next few months.

Although both companies will continue delivering their individual security products, users will now have a choice between NAC, NAP or the new interoperable architecture that will meld the two.

Cisco and Microsoft said on Wednesday that users will be able to start deploying the NAC-NAP architecture when Windows Longhorn server is available in the second half of 2007. Third-party vendors will be able to integrate the architecture through Windows Vista NAP APIs, the companies said. The NAC-NAP announcement at the Security Standard conference in Boston, puts a few more teeth in the promise Cisco and Microsoft made in October 2004 to create an interoperable secure environment.

Despite the companies' stated commitment to interoperability, some users still sense that there is a security hierarchy. "Cisco seems to be the alpha dog," said Ted Harmon, senior network engineer at Emulex Corp., a storage networking company based in Costa Mesa, Calif.

But Cisco can't be the only piece of the security puzzle. Other small security companies, such as Funk Software -- bought last fall by Juniper Networks Inc. -- and Checkpoint Software Technologies Ltd. have products that fill some gaps in the security picture because no one company can do it all, he said.

Microsoft's security partnership with Cisco may be a plus because the networking giant has in-depth experience when it comes to hackers, said Linda Hewlett, systems engineer at Berkshire Health Systems in Pittsfield, Mass. "Cisco is in the forefront of security," she said. "They have a good handle on the threats that are out there. They have customers in government, education and healthcare, so they're very broad in their knowledge."

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For IT managers, interoperability among the major vendors may also mean fewer battles for control. "A Windows administrator can go talk to the network administrator and say, 'we can have interoperability. Let's work on a plan to deploy' instead of saying 'mine is better than yours -- let's fight it out,'" said Mark Ashida, general manager of enterprise networking servers at Microsoft.

But bridging the gap may not be so simple. "It's not always a technology challenge, but rather, a people challenge," said Scott Crawford, an analyst at Enterprise Management Associates, in Boulder, Colo. Everyone seems to be slow to the table realizing the real security risks -- except for the security manager, who has all of the responsibility but doesn't have the authority to make all the decisions on his own, Crawford said.

Even though some questions remain whether Microsoft and Cisco will really be able to pull it off, Emulex's Harmon said he is still keen on taking the new security architecture for a test drive.

"It's going to be fun to get it in here and see what it can do," he said.

Christine Casatelli contributed to this report.

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