Tech & Work

Cheat Sheet: Security appliances

A must-have box of tricks or just another in a long line of 'next big things'?

A security appliance? What does this do?
Well as you might imagine, it's an appliance - often a black or silver (techies may call it 'gun metal') box - which handles a lot of your security needs such as antivirus, anti-spam and content filtering. The various models work in different ways and address different issues in many cases - with varying degrees of integration and threat management - but the premise is basically the same.

And where would I put that?
The idea is that the appliance sits at the gateway and cleans data as it enters the enterprise, or passes across network borders.

Is this a new thing?
No, not by any stretch of the imagination.

So why are we talking about this now?
Because everybody else is. While a number of companies put their bets on appliances some years ago, over the past year or so we've seen a lot of companies jumping on the bandwagon and bringing out their own appliances; so software vendors are now doing hardware and services companies are now doing hardware.

Such as?
A number of traditional antivirus software vendors such as F-Secure, McAfee and Sophos have brought out appliances in the past six months or so and we've also seen companies such as Clearswift and MessageLabs getting involved. Importantly, Symantec has been on-board with an integrated gateway appliance for some years now - though many, raised on a diet of desktop antivirus, still think of it as the largest of the pure-play AV software companies.

But if it's not what they've done in the past, what's to say they'll be any good?
It's a good question - just because you can make good antivirus software it doesn't mean you can make decent hardware. That's for them to prove, and the signs look good. The issue is what's most important - the delivery method or the expertise. Arguably it is the former.

There is also the question of whether these appliances are going to appeal to customers who have clearly bought into software already or whether it is a case of adapting to customers' changing needs - or whether these companies will have to go to market and compete for new customers, against established appliance vendors. There are still a lot of questions to be answered.

It will also be interesting to see what this means for antivirus companies, now launching appliances, who currently provide a service to existing appliance vendors.

So the vendors seem 'up for it'. What's the appeal to the customer?
One of the arguments put forward to the end users is greater simplicity and all that entails, such as low management overheads. Of course, a fully managed service - essentially using systems in somebody else's location - takes that a step further but there are those who maintain they want to keep security within their own four walls and literally be able to touch it and see it is there. For them the appliance holds a great deal of appeal and vendors new and established have gone to great lengths to 'big up' words such as 'unified' and 'manageable'.

So appliances are the future then?
Not necessarily. A lot of people agree they make sense but some say only as part of a layered solution. Hence many companies are looking to do software and appliance or managed service and appliance, while others have opted for offering managed service and software. In each case it's more that they are putting their eggs in several baskets than writing off any one option. The analysts appear similarly divided. James Governor at Red Monk said: "Appliances are one of those things I keep expecting to see explode but we're really not. The value proposition makes sense but we're not seeing a clear and obvious trend towards appliances."

So it's a case of watch this space?
There are still some very large players yet to make a move into appliances - and some who've stated 'never, no way, no-siree' - but the consensus opinion suggests vendors will have to have eggs in at least two baskets to future-proof their business models. Many who don't have interests outside security may well opt for software or managed services plus an appliance strategy. The appliance looks likely to be the most common first or second choice.

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