Security dominates 2008 IT agenda

Will 2008 see the first serious security exploit in corporate VoIP networks? Or will network security breakdowns cast a pall on the upcoming presidential elections and Olympic games? Will users' Web 2.0 forays open the malware floodgates?

Experts say security concerns will dominate the network landscape in 2008 whether we like it or not. But it won't be all gloom and doom. Faster wireless LANs are on the way, enterprise-class open source applications are multiplying, and Google is continuing to muscle its way into new markets -- raising the bar for competitors along the way.

Here are some of the highlights of what enterprise IT teams can expect in the new year.

Malware of Olympic proportions

Two high-profile events -- the 2008 Olympics in China and the U.S. presidential elections -- will trigger a stream of exploits, security experts warn.

Olympics-related Web sites and networks are potential places to infect people, says Dan Hubbard, vice president of security research at Websense. "The 2008 Olympics will be used as a lure for fraud, too. Massive amounts on an international scale," Hubbard says.

Also on tap for 2008 are Storm-like botnets with decentralised command-and-control structures that make them much tougher to shut down, says Craig Schmugar, researcher at McAfee.

"Storm is a trend setter," Schmugar says of the infamous botnet that traces back to a network attack launched one year ago. "A lot of the spam we see is coming across Storm-compromised machines."

McAfee also is expecting a wave of malware parasitics, which look for specific files and embed themselves. To combat infection by parasitics, "you have to isolate the parasitic code within the host code," Schmugar notes. "If it overwrites the good code, you may never get it back."

VoIP not a target . . . for now

One security threat that may not materialise in 2008 is exploits against VoIP systems.

It's not that the danger isn't real -- it is. VoIP is susceptible to the many exploits that networks in general are heir to, including denial-of-service attacks and buffer overflows. In addition, there are many voice-specific attacks and threats. For instance, two protocols widely used in VoIP -- H.323 and IAX -- have been shown to be vulnerable to sniffing during authentication, which can reveal passwords that can later be used to compromise a voice network. Implementations of SIP, an alternative VoIP protocol, can leave VoIP networks open to unauthorised transport of data.

Still, there have been few exploits so far and none that were widespread or crippling to businesses. "We are not hearing about attacks. We don't think they are happening," says Lawrence Orans, an analyst with Gartner.

Part of the reason may be that the largest VoIP vendors use proprietary protocols, such as Cisco's Skinny, Nortel's Unistim and Avaya's variant of H.323, Orans says. That makes them difficult to obtain and study for potential security cracks. "These systems are not readily available to the bad guys," he says.

The bad news is that some experts don't expect the lack of attention from attackers to last.

"VoIP is, in essence, a time bomb, poised for a massive exploit," says Paul Simmonds, a member of the management board of the Jericho Forum, a user group promoting new principles for secure networking.

Waiting for 11n

On the wireless front, the buzz is all about 802.11n. Enterprises eager for the next generation of WLAN technology are so enthralled with the promise of 802.11n they're not waiting for the standard to be finalised to plan deployments. Some companies are seriously weighing the use of products based on the draft 2 IEEE 802.11n standard, which promises data rates of 300Mbps and throughput of 150M to 180Mbps.

The contrast with conventional WLAN gear -- with a maximum data rate of 54Mbps and throughput of less than half that -- is so dramatic that at least some enterprises are willing to pay a premium for 11n gear, and adopt a not-quite-standard technology on the assumption that any changes in the 11n standard can be dealt with via software updates.

Just as important as greater throughput is greater reliability and consistency in connectivity and performance, due in part to 11n's multiple antenna technology called multiple input multiple output (MIMO). For the first time, 11n makes feasible the idea of relying on the WLAN as the primary means of network access.

Still, there are plenty of issues early adopters must surmount. The adoption of 11n will in a few cases force companies to beef up their edge switches to support gigabit Ethernet. To get the full benefit of 11n capacity, they may have to upgrade existing power-over-Ethernet infrastructures to the new 802.3at standard, which is barely entering the market at the close of 2007. In addition, WLAN management software from some vendors may be lagging behind the hardware rollouts, a troubling shortcoming at least in the short term.

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