RealTime IT News

At The ForeFront of Microsoft Security

Clint BoultonReporter's Notebook: This week, I began to look at Microsoft as a vendor serious about securing computers after it unveiled its ForeFront brand at Tech Ed 2006 in Boston.

I'm not trying to be a pessimist. The company has done a number of things in the last handful of years to build up to this debut.

I know Trustworthy Computing has been floating around as a mantra for more than four years, and that Microsoft has long offered the edge security gateway known as the Internet Security and Acceleration Server.

I also know that the company has made a slew of acquisitions to bolster it's data protection offerings, including anti-virus vendor GeCAD, anti-spyware vendor Giant Software, anti-virus specialist Sybari Software, e-mail security concern FrontBridge, smart-card maker Alacris and SSL VPN provider Whale Communications.

Those acquired assets have been situated together and introduced, or reintroduced, if you prefer, as a set of products under one portfolio or brand.

ForeFront, the security suite, features cross-product integration. Microsoft has designed it so the products work together to help defend customers' information across the client, server and edge of the network.

The products include Microsoft Client Security (formerly Microsoft Client Protection, a hybrid of the software assets of GeCAD and Giant); Microsoft ForeFront Server for Exchange Server (called Microsoft Antigen for Exchange; Microsoft ForeFront Server for SharePoint (Microsoft Antigen for SharePoint); Antigen for Instant Messaging; and ISA Server 2006.

Steve Brown, director of product management for the security business and technology unit at Microsoft, said the portfolio follows on a promise Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer made eight months ago that the software giant is in the security product business and not just baking in security at the platform level.

"The feedback from customers was: 'There are a set of security products that we need across client, sever and edge, and frankly with Microsoft's knowledge of applications and our existing infrastructure, we'd like to see Microsoft provide that'," Brown told internetnews.com at a briefing at Tech Ed.

These products, which also work with existing Microsoft infrastructure and applications, are designed to simplify the deployment, administration and management of the security software for businesses with small IT staff or customers who are so busy they need to be freed up to do other things.

In one example of how the products work with each other to improve security, ISA Server integrates with SharePoint to provide pre-authentication and form-based authentication, as well as a wizard-based approach to publishing SharePoint.

This can offer enterprises what Brown described as "zero to secure extranet in about 15 minutes. There's five wizard screens that the SharePoint administrator can click through and they have securely published SharePoint out on the Web."

Net-net, I view the materialization of ForeFront as a positive thing. Companies with comprehensive security portfolios tend to engender trust in the customer mindshare if the products work.

Enterprise Strategy Group analyst Eric Ogren said ForeFront answers the question of whether or not Microsoft would deliver security over the Internet as a service, integrate security into Windows, .NET, and Exchange/SQL/LCS servers to make more secure products or offer security products in a suite.

The Forefront product line indicates that Microsoft chose the security products path, said Ogren, who attended Tech Ed.

"Customers are happy because Microsoft is stepping up to the security challenges, and at the end of the day customers will have more security choices and more price points," Ogren said.

"Many enterprise security issues arise in managing the complexity of relationships between business traffic and layers of security," he added. "Microsoft is one of the few vendors that can truly go end-to-end (cloud-edge-server-client) to make businesses more secure."

This is where it gets interesting.

I have to wonder, in this world of so-called "co-opitition," whether or not long-time security partner Symantec's willingness to remain a peaceful partner with Microsoft is in jeopardy.

Symantec is the security market leader and Microsoft no doubt covets that lofty position in a multi-billion-dollar market. Can the companies withstand the growing competition?

"We intend to compete very vigorously by trying to differentiate ourselves, but at the same time we also focus on partnering," Brown said when asked about the relationship.

"Just a couple weeks ago, Symantec announced a set of integrated technologies that go right on top of ISA Server to provide anti-malware, so we do work closely work with them."

In the end, Brown said it's up for the customer to decide which direction they will go. Fair enough. Let's go to the third-party analysis.

Ogren said he doesn't see ForeFront as having much of an impact on the Symantec-Microsoft relationship, noting that Symantec has known for years that Microsoft would be moving into the security arena.

The analyst echoed Brown in saying the customers will decide, noting that Microsoft will start in the mid-markets and expand downward to small businesses and upward to larger enterprise. Symantec will try to hem them in and use Veritas contacts to dominate upmarket, he predicted.

IDC analyst Charles Kolodgy agreed.

"Microsoft is such a big complex company that they don't really dump anyone," Kolodgy said. "They have had problems with Sun and IBM but they also work with those vendors in many ways. Symantec will be the same way I'm sure."

"Relations can be strained at the top and any large projects would be limited or not entered into but there will be tactical elements that still work."

Still, I have to wonder if it will be that simple, especially given Symantec's lawsuit to halt Vista.

While Symantec says it is merely protecting it's technology, it is also obviously a move to slow Microsoft's momentum, capitalize on Microsoft's generous legal track record of settling big suits.

While analysts insist it is a separate issue, I have to wonder how this will shake out. Will Microsoft pay Symantec to go away, or will they fight back?

That suit filing, announced three weeks ago, should receive an answer soon.

Until then, it'll be like waiting to see if the star couple in a prime-time soap opera will embark on the nasty divorce, or part peacefully.

Clint Boulton is managing editor of internetnews.com.