A closer look at UTM hardware architecture

From off-the-shelf to lightly customised and heavily engineered chassis

One of the appliances we received was simply an off-the-shelf server (IBM's System x3650). Other devices ranged from very lightly customized (Secure Computing put an IPS accelerator board and a customized BIOS in a Dell box to yield its Sidewinder 2150D) to the heavily engineered chassis found in the Juniper ISG-1000 and the Fortinet FortiGate 3600A.

In general, though, firewall vendors have taken advantage of the enormous boon that Intel has provided in low-cost, high-performance CPUs that are aimed at general-purpose computing. Much of the customization in the devices we received was aimed at increasing port density and value engineering by removing parts, such as graphics adapters, that add cost but not value.

Starting from the ground up, power options abound as the Crossbeam C25, FortiGate 3600A, IBM System x3650, IBM/ISS Proventia MX5010 and Secure Computing Sidewinder 2150D all sport two power supplies, either as an option or as part of the base configuration. Although two power supplies make a system less efficient in its use of electricity (see UTM power-consumption story), they do guard against one of the most common failures: accidentally unplugging the wrong system.

The same is true of slots. With most of these devices coming out of the box with at least four, Gigabit Ethernet ports as well as VLAN support, having expansion slots may be overkill, though it does give you a lot of options. Consider the Juniper SSG-520M, which lets you pick from 16 different expansion cards, including WAN and DSL interfaces.

CrossBeam and Nokia also offered "failopen" Ethernet cards, which pass traffic through in the event of total system failure. You wouldn't want "failopen" for a normal firewall, but these can be useful in an IPS deployment where the firewall features are secondary or simply "defense in depth" backups.

The only system that fell below our base expectations for its hardware flexibility was the IBM/ISS Proventia MX5010, which has no VLAN support.

Early firewall hardware wars saw vendors touting their expensive custom devices have fallen off as the use of high-speed Intel server CPUs and open source Unix kernels make it simpler for UTM vendors to add third-party packages, such as antivirus or Web filtering, to these systems.

Nevertheless, there is still some jostling to be done. For example, Juniper told us that "in the future" it would be releasing an update to the ISG-1000 (an ASIC-based firewall) that would double its firewall performance. That's a nice gift for buyers who committed to the ISG-1000, the oldest platform in our test, if Juniper can do it. Fortinet didn't make a direct promise, but also hinted that its custom network processor and content processor devices would give them the ability tune performance over time.

Read related articles:
Check Point UTM management falters; Cisco, Juniper gain
UTM and IPv6: Do they mix?
UTM performance takes a hit
Juniper, Cisco all-in-1 devices hit on intrusion-prevention
VPN capabilities vary widely across UTM firewall devices
Tracking UTM high availability
UTMs require routing for flexibility's sake
Watts up with power consumption?
AV's place is not in the all-in-one security box

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