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Analysis Paralysis

Nov
9
2006

Back in mid-1990s, when the high tech sector was on the cusp of exploding into an economic runaway train and I was knee-deep in flackery, there were a number of shell games that my clients would use to appear bigger and more vital than they really were. I was still either naïve or all to willing to suspend disbelief and help them carry off the illusion, diligently assembling communications strategies and writing copy replete with terms like strategic partner, product vision, and leadership position.

Like the frilled lizard putting on an impressive display, the hoped-for outcome was to cause some to believe we were bigger than we actually were, or to pause long enough for us to figure out a way to assess the situation and gain an advantage.

We called it stalling competitive sales. It was a transparent move, and a dangerous one for companies with no real product to sell, but it played to the client’s ego and to unrealistic product development expectations. New laws and regulations designed to create more transparency in corporate governance, plus the threat of public backlash and public relations disaster seemed to put most of corporate America back on the straight and narrow, but a recent look at the news shows that the specter of the “strategic partnership” remains with us.

I point to a recent announcement by Microsoft and Cisco on the subject of network security — keeping the bad guys from figuring out clever ways to sneak onto your computer and steal valuable information. It’s a serious issue, and in recognition of that fact the two technology giants have given us a “technical white paper.”

Is that sound I hear angels singing, or the derisive laughter of less heavenly beings?

With vague images of terrorist crashing the U.S. banking system – or worse – the idea of “network security” is front-and-center on the minds of companies and government officials. Billions are spent each year in an effort to protect digital information assets. Still, there’s a groundswell building behind the idea that the basic approach to network security needs to change if wholesale improvement is to happen. Microsoft and Cisco both understand this.

Consider that, for as long as there has been networking, the goal has been to achieve fast, reliable access in order to enable data communications. Problem is, the “access first” model that puts performance – you get what you want quickly – over security has proven risky. Dangerous elements outside and careless elements inside the network put constant pressure on IT security to carry out the Sisyphean task of keeping information under lock and key, while still available for doing business day-to-day.

Issues related to bandwidth and access have largely been overcome so no one thinks twice about whether stuff is going to work when it gets plugged in. These days, it’s the largely invisible machinations of security-related activity that keep network admins up at night.

In to this balance comes the concept of Network Access Control (aka NAC). NAC takes the approach that networks are fast, reliable, and intelligent enough now to flip the equation. It’s no longer incumbent on the user to be adept enough at a keyboard to be productive, so the time has come to put the onus of security on the network. There’s too much at risk to rely on aftermarket products for security. Security needs to be pervasive, not tacked on.

Rod Murchison, vice president of marketing with Mountain View, California-based Vernier Networks says that “Security concerns, regulatory compliance, and public outrage are driving the motivation” behind NAC, and that the market is catching on. There are as many as 50 companies building and selling products based on the NAC concept. Muchison says that Vernier, which has been around for more than five years, has more than 1,000 installations.

The problem for Microsoft has been that its version of NAC has been infused with Redmond bravado. Rather than build on the open source model, Microsoft demands that NAC be carried out its way. Companies are voting with their feet, and they aren’t walking toward Microsoft, thus the need for an interoperability partnership announcement with Cisco. If Microsoft can convince the market it’s on the verge of delivering a product that works with the world’s biggest networking systems vendor, it might buy some time.

No one doubts that the big brains at Microsoft won’t get it right, eventually. Indeed, Vista is headed in that direction, but with true NAC availability not expected until 2008, what’s a prospective customer to do?

Microsoft is hoping that their white paper announcement will stall enough decisions in the interim that it will have less ground to make up when they are ready to deliver. The ironic twist in all this is that it really is the innovators who are delivering the goods, while the stalwart is on the defensive. The question is whether or not the ruse will work, whether a promised “architecture” will create enough analysis paralysis to buy Microsoft the time it needs.

Share  Posted by Mike Spinney at 7:15 PM | Permalink

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