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RealTime IT News

Microsoft Close to Completing its Security Server

Microsoft is very close to releasing the full version of its Internet Security and Acceleration (ISA) Server 2004, according to sources close to the matter.

The Redmond, Wash.-based firm Tuesday made a second public beta of the software, three years in development, available for download.

The software is geared to drive a server that sits above the application layer, where it would work as a combination application layer firewall, virtual personal network (VPN) and Web caching repository.

Microsoft said the software helps protect applications such as Microsoft Exchange, Internet Information Services and SharePoint, but in theory, ISA could protect any application within its boundaries, including ones running on Linux or UNIX.

"Hackers tend to target the point of least resistance in a network, and lately that's been the application layer because network firewalls are not traditionally designed to detect and prevent these types of threats," said Charles Kolodgy, research director at Framingham, Mass.-based IDC.

But while Microsoft's policy is to remain hush on future release dates of its platforms, Yankee Group analyst Laura Didio, who has been following the ISA saga since the beginning, told internetnews.com the software should hit the market in the next three to four months.

"This is a much more mature server software than previous versions," Didio said. We are expecting ISA to ship 90 to 120 days barring any unforeseen 'gotchas'.

By "gotchas," Didio said unforeseen problems always seem to crop up in beta testing, such as compatibility issues. But in terms of security, she said the company has done the lion's share of its work on ISA in trying to raise the bar on security.

"A hack delayed is a hack denied," Didio said. "They are protecting the application layer, which is higher up the stack. They simplified the user interface to make it more user friendly and added more policies. The software lets you delve more into the protocols and the packets."

Didio said ISA's software not only makes it harder to get in, it sets alerts that notify system administrators so they can provide additional protection. The proxy part also allows the software to protect applications from the inside out, such as in academic environments.

Microsoft said its new management tools make the product easier for security administrators to learn and, ultimately, help customers avoid security breaches that can occur due to firewall misconfiguration.

"Customers have told us they need an integrated firewall solution to help them address the growing number of application-based security threats," said Jonathan Perera, senior director of Product Management in the Security and Business Technology Unit at Microsoft, in a statement.

Despite its wide-ranging security blanket, the ISA platform calls into question whether or not Web-based applications are the best way to protect an overall system. Instead of using Windows Server 2003 as the baseline, could Microsoft's other software platforms like Office alternatively be tweaked with Web services to serve the same purpose? Didio says no.

"Certainly ISA is not the end-all-be-all," she said. "It is one more layer of security. Web services are here, but remember originally, some people were afraid that electricity would burn down their houses."

Ironically, the server software beta was released to the public on a day that most server rooms and data centers could have used a little extra security.

Thanks to some malicious code, the MyDoom virus spread quickly through mail servers at the beginning of the week. Though its mass e-mail properties, the virus is expected to serve as a direct denial of service (DDoS) attack on some select Web sites starting February 1.