Palo Alto Networks launches next-generation firewall

New company takes on Check Point, Cisco, Juniper

Palo Alto Networks is a start-up with a big goal: replacing traditional network-layer perimeter firewalls altogether.

The company expects most customers will first install its PA-4000 series, next-generation firewalls to supplement their existing firewalls. Then, as users come to trust Palo Alto over time, they will swap out their old firewalls.

PA-4000 devices perform deep packet inspection on traffic originating in business networks that is perhaps destined for servers outside the company. The devices identify what applications are running on the network and apply filters based on them.

Traditional firewalls from Check Point Software, Cisco and Juniper Networks identify applications by the protocols and ports they use, so they cannot distinguish among the many Web applications running through ports 80 and 443, says Rob Whiteley, an analyst with Forrester Research. The Palo Alto gear can distinguish particular applications within Web traffic and filter them.

PA-4000 appliances, for example, can distinguish between Yahoo Mail and corporate e-mail and allow both but block attachments from the Yahoo Mail, Palo Alto says.

Traditional firewall vendors lash together their firewalls and intrusion-prevention systems (IPS) in single devices to offer features similar to those in PA-4000s, says Greg Young, a research vice president with Gartner. These products are not truly integrated, however, he says. Rather, the firewalls and IPSs within these devices pass traffic back and forth and perform their separate functions.

Palo Alto gear can proxy SSL traffic, terminating and decrypting sessions so the content can be inspected and filtered. Traditional firewalls and IPSs that don't decrypt SSL have no way of screening the content. "IPSs and firewalls are blind to SSL," says Young. "And SSL traffic is increasing."

Customers can configure what SSL traffic is decrypted in Palo Alto gear and what traffic is allowed to pass through. For instance, a business might want to inspect SSL traffic bound for a known competitor, but not inspect SSL traffic to a savings and loan, where an employee probably is checking on a bank statement.

Palo Alto acknowledges that customers may be reluctant to trust their equipment right away, so it has three deployment options. First, the gear can be deployed out-of-band to monitor traffic and give customers an accounting of the applications that are running on the network.

It also can be deployed inline with traffic and perform functions strictly supplemental to existing firewalls, which requires no re-architecting of the network's demilitarized zone. This gives customers the chance to analyze their traffic and decide the policies they want to set for each type.

Last, the device can be deployed inline as a replacement for existing firewalls but with additional capabilities. This could face resistance from enterprise security executives who don't want to make a major rip-and-replace of their installed, reliable traditional firewalls, says Whiteley.

The company says it is working on tools to migrate policy settings from existing firewalls to its gear rather than having to write them from scratch for the PA-4000s. Key developers at Palo Alto held jobs with Check Point and NetScreen (now part of Juniper), and the company says the configuration interfaces are designed to be familiar to people trained in devices made by these two competitors.

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