Cloud security firm Zscaler is taking on the vendors selling appliances as the solution to Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs) with a new cloud-based service that claims it can stop multi-pronged attacks in real time for all types of device under its wing.
With Zscaler for APT, the firm makes the argument that the cloud is the only place that complex, overlapping attacks taking in zero-day exploits, multiple types of bot and backdoor malware, social engineering, and data exfiltration can be defended against without adding hugely to security complexity and cost.
This is particularly true as mobile devices across new platforms proliferate because these by their very nature spend as much time outside the perimeter defences as they do inside, adding to the difficulty of protecting them.
Within its cloud service, Zscaler is actually doing some of the same things that an enterprise security appliance would, starting with a behavioural analysis engine to block malware. This is complemented with an inline traffic inspection component that includes a DNS analysis component to spot botnets "calling home."
The final component is Security Event Management (SIEM) and big data analytics that tries to connect security events across a range of clients in order to offer remediation. Zscaler's APT service also offers comprehensive SSL inspection.
"Many security vendors have overhyped APTs, blurring its definition to distract the market from the fact that their solutions are simple features that should be included in a greater platform," said Zscaler's vice president of research, Michael Sutton.
"Advanced threats are more than just social engineering, zero-day attacks or data exfiltration; they are the sum of these parts and more, requiring a comprehensive solution to address each individual attack surface as a whole."
It was only through a cloud service that all the necessary layers of protection could be offered, he argued.
The cloud move is a logical one for a maturing startup that has built its story on the belief that the cloud is not an alternative way of offering security so much as the only way it can now be offered. There is something to this argument; attackers rely on defenders being isolated in private silos whereas a cloud provider can see the larger patterns more clearly.
But the cloud's real strength is perhaps as much about cost and convenience; building on-site security systems from individual appliances is expensive and some enterprises must be wondering whether the benefit of independence and oversight is worth it in the long run.
Zscaler hasn't revealed the cost of its APT service, which will be offered on a per-user basis. It describes it as competitive with the alternative of buying boxes for each location and then supporting and upgrading them over time.
The challenge for Zscaler and for the emerging cloud security industry will be convincing its potential customers that already have big investments in appliances that the cloud offers not simply a way of supplementing security bur replacing it.
There is no doubt APTs exist - numerous Chinese-based attacks on US firms attest to this - but sceptics might suggest the term has become a generalisation for what used to be called 'blended' attacks. There is a danger that the area is overheating with self-serving hype.