Microsoft plunges into firewall, cache market

Microsoft Corp. last month continued its parade of server releases, this time with a firewall and cache server first introduced last year.

The Internet Security and Acceleration (ISA) server provides access controls, traffic filtering, intrusion detection, bandwidth control and reporting capabilities. It marks Microsoft’s first serious attempt to enter the security market. ISA server replaces Microsoft’s Proxy Server.

In mid-Februaury, Microsoft completed development on its Application Center 2000 server, which is designed for managing distributed Web applications running within Web server farms. At that time the company said the server would be generally available in four to six weeks.

Both servers are part of Microsoft’s .Net Enterprise Server lineup, which is made up of eight servers. Seven of the servers have been released: Exchange 2000, SQL 2000, Host Integration Server 2000, Commerce Server 2000, BizTalk Server 2000, ISA and AppCenter. An eighth, Mobile Information Server 2001, was announced in September 2000 and will ship later this year.

All the servers run only on the Windows 2000 operating system, which is showing a slower than anticipated adoption rate in the enterprise just one year after its release, according to Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Group Inc. Microsoft is hoping interest in the .Net servers will trigger upgrades to Windows 2000.

ISA’s main features are a software-based firewall and a caching mechanism, which stores frequently accessed Web content close to end users. Enterprises can run the server as a combination firewall/cache, or run it exclusively as a firewall or a caching device.

Critics say the server looks good on paper and plugs a security hole in Microsoft’s .Net vision, which is to create a platform for delivering applications over the Internet. Those same critics, however, say Microsoft faces an uphill battle to establish itself as a firewall vendor.

But the software giant is making its move when many IT organizations are looking to software-based firewalls or routing filters to control the flow of traffic to and from the Internet, according to analysts. Those systems are replacing monolithic hardware-based firewalls.

ISA’s firewall features include stateful inspection, integrated intrusion detection and data-aware application filters. It also includes the ability to alert administrators to suspicious activity.

Microsoft says third-party vendors will add such features as reporting tools and URL blockers. Also, ISA will rely on Windows 2000 for VPN and user authentication.

“With the release of ISA Server, Microsoft is taking a large step toward enabling business on the Internet,” Microsoft’s Paul Flessner said in a prepared statement. Flessner is the senior vice-president of .Net Enterprise Servers at Microsoft. Microsoft officials also said ISA passed the ICSA Labs firewall certification test, a de-facto industry standard for firewall security.

ISA Server is available in two editions. The Standard Edition is priced at US$1,499 per CPU, and the Enterprise Edition is US$5,999 per CPU.