RSA - Cisco's transformation still work in progress

NACs a tough sell, enterprise demands cooperation

Cisco Systems used the RSA Security Conference in San Francisco to trumpet its transformation from "packet pusher" to "infrastructure" company, unveiling a string of product updates that unify its diverse security portfolio on Monday.

However, the company still has work to do to make that transformation complete and will need to ramp up its outreach to third-party vendors to make initiatives like its SONA (Service Oriented Networking Architecture) and Network Admission Control a reality, analysts and customers say.

Cisco announced releases to its ASA (Adaptive Security Appliance) product, IPS, CSA (Cisco Security Agent), CSM (Cisco Security Manager), and MARS (Mitigation Analysis and Response System) products.

The enhancements will give enterprises better protection against a new generation of sophisticated and targeted attacks and an evolving "human network" of mobile and Web based technologies, Jeff Platon, Cisco's vice president of security marketing told a room full of reporters and analysts on Monday.

"When you think about our role and how it's evolved, we've moved from being a packet pusher to an infrastructure company," Platon said. "And if you look at the trends, Cisco's not going to be a network vendor. Whether its voice or video in the consumer space, those requirements are going to change what Cisco becomes to the marketplace."

But key elements of the company's transformation are very much works in progress that will require Cisco to forge close ties with other vendors before they bear fruit.

SONA, an effort to create a service-oriented architectural framework that unifies network-based services like security, mobility, and location on virtualized platforms, will require close cooperation with third-party vendors that may be Cisco competitors in some areas, said Richard Palmer, senior vice president of Cisco's Security Technology Unit.

"If we allow third-party applications to operate on our platforms like ASA and ISR, it will make for a tighter set of partners and more longevity," Palmer said.

Currently, Cisco has a number of teams across the company developing SONA components for functions like authentication and control plane and data plane integration for third-party products to work on platforms like Cisco' ASA, Palmer said.

To promote SONA, Cisco will strike more deals like the joint marketing initiative with SAP on governance, risk, and compliance solutions, which it announced in September.

Similarly, the company will need to work closely with firms like Microsoft and other third-party vendors on issues like security. Cisco and Microsoft have been hammering out an integration of their two competing NAC frameworks for more than two years, largely at the urging of enterprise customers.

Palmer allowed that many enterprise customers may prefer to use features built into Windows Vista in lieu of Cisco's own CSA client software.

"Clearly, what we do is driven by customer choice. Customers are saying, 'Look, we're committed to Vista, and we want you to work more closely," he said. However, Palmer said that some customers may still prefer the CSA client for endpoint security.

But for Cisco's enterprise customers, choice and integration with other vendors remains a pressing issue.

Patricia M. Lawicki, vice president and CIO at Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E), a Cisco customer since 1987, said that the company's technology plays a key part in helping PG&E restructure its IT operations after the California electricity crisis of 2000 and 2001 forced the company into bankruptcy.

Cisco's technology is helping PG&E with a major business transformation, including the phasing out of mainframe and first-generation client-server applications, a major deployment of technology from SAP, and overhauls of supply chain and customer service systems.

While PG&E is using the company's NAC appliance, Cisco's full NAC solution, which requires wholesale upgrades to its networking infrastructure, remains too expensive for PG&E to adopt, especially with the wealth of legacy Cisco hardware that would need to be replaced, Lawicki said.

A committed Cisco customer, PG&E still wants to be able to choose best-of-breed solutions -- particularly in areas like security -- and is pushing Cisco and its other suppliers to make that possible, she said.

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Paul F. Roberts

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