Cisco's 5500 series firewalls get major Sourcefire security overhaul

Integrates malware and IPS into the formula

Forget the next-generation firewall story, Cisco is telling its customers that the next wave is something that goes far beyond mere application control by integrating intrusion protection and malware detection and control into one box.

This week's announcement is the firm's new "threat-focused firewall" built from a mixture of its own firewall packet-filtering technology and intrusion prevention and anti-malware intelligence software added through last year's $2.7 billion Sourcefire buy.

Vendors still call them 'firewalls', but it's clear from the new Cisco ASA with FirePOWER Services that the job these devices now do has expanded far beyond basic packet and software port control.

The first iteration of the evolution was the idea of 'next-generation firewalls' some years ago, which added the ability to detect and claim down on applications and users and, to some extent, the threats targeting those layers.

Adding Sourcefire's Advanced Malware Protection (AMP) and Next-Gen Intrusion Prevention System (NGIPS) platforms takes this a stage further, although some might argue that this is really about terminology as much as anything. Rivals do much the same job using independent appliances or just drop or ignore the firewall function completely in dedicated appliances.

Cisco customers don't work that way. You can see the argument - on complex networks with multiple sub-nets, adding more devices can quickly become a headache. Consolidating these makes life easier and building in security layers makes sense at the point in the network that firewalls sit.

What you end up with is basically a Cisco 5500 Series firewall - one of the most popular firewall designs in the world - that does a lot of other FireEye-like things to earn its keep.

You can read the technical spec here if you're prepared to plough through the sales pitch about the products being "visibility driven" (that's a firewall, right?), "threat-focused" and "platform-based".

What matters is that these are not all super high-end firewalls and could be used in just about any network from bottom of the barrel 150Mbps throughputs to tens of Gigabits, depending on the model.

For Sourcefire enthusiasts, it's the path to getting hold of its well-regarded technology as part of the Cisco universe. To be clear, the 5500 series' upgrade also means that Cisco has ditched its own IPS gubbins.

"Their own IPS was nowhere near as efficient as ours," comments Cisco security strategist Sean Newman, who arrived at the firm as part of that acquisition.

According to Newman, the boosted firewalls don't just sit there either, and build up a picture of what is happening on a customer's network, whether that be the movement of files and data, the behaviour of applications such as browsers (right down to version number), or servers, devices or users. Nothing is trusted.

He is adamant that this is how firewalls need to be these days. "Next generation firewalls don't threat management."

Interestingly, Cisco quoted Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which was on the receiving end of an infamous 2011 attack, as a potential customer-in-the-making.

"Like any high-profile organisation, Oak Ridge National Laboratory must be diligent about our security strategy because the sad reality is that every organisation is the target of an attack as we saw first-hand in 2011," said Oak Ridge National Laboratory CISO, Kevin Kerr.

"We cannot afford another surprise malware attack to disrupt our operations, which is why we are looking at the next generation of protective tools. Cisco ASA with FirePOWER Services is among some of the tools we are considering to help us defend the Lab."

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