University buys Palo Alto firewalls after NAC problems lock out students

Wolverhampton University plumps for two PA 5020s

The University of Wolverhampton has bought a pair of high-end Palo Alto 5020 firewalls after hitting problems with an aging Network Access Control (NAC) system that was disrupting access by legitimate student users.

The University wasn't willing to name the "leading" NAC involved (although a search on the Internet revealed the likely name) but admitted the 2007-spec system had been overwhelmed by the complexity of securing, mostly wireless network access from a plethora of devices.

Unable to gain "visibility" on these clients, staff had implemented minimum security standards on devices, complicating access for 3,500 staff and 25,000 students, some of whom were not native English speakers, it said.

This had led to 20 to 30 students per month being denied access to the University's network, multiplying the overhead on staff to levels it described as "crippling."

In addition, the NAC had been unable to "keep up with antivirus updates on clients," with 70 cases proving impossible to resolve.

The University looked at firewalls from Cisco, Check Point, Juniper and ipoque before plumping for Palo Alto's 5000 series box, the 5Gbps-capable 5020. This offered realtime protection, allowing the IT team to look track the bandwidth and applications used by individual students and staff.

"Unparalleled visibility allows us to detect and block threats in real time, whilst we can also drill down into to the detail, even isolating a single infected PC on the network. It's functionality we could only dream of before," said University of Wolverhampton network design consultant, Max Caines.

"Time, and by extension, cost savings have been considerable. We have freed up significant man-hours by eliminating the need to chase down infections (real and imagined), combat copyright violations and resolve access issues."

Importantly, the false positives that had caused so many problems under the old NAC system had been eliminated in a migration that took only two weeks to implement.

A final and interesting consideration was that the University had gained visibility into P2P file sharing activity. This had been a problem when linking to the UK JANET academic system, which imposes strict controls on copyright, he said. Dealing with this issue on its own had consumed 20-30 hours of staff time per month.

In defence of the NAC involved, the six years since it was installed is an age in computing terms. At that time the only network devices would have been Windows or Apple PCs, both with mature client management security. Since then, however, tablets and smartphones and Chrome laptops have appeared.

"As a department we've been able to move from fire-fighters to business enablers," said Caines. "It's demonstrable improvement that's having a positive impact on the reputation of the university generally and IT specifically."

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