Vendor entry

Microsoft Corp.’s play in the security space may cause raised eyebrows among the skeptics, but industry observers agree that the software giant’s foray into the protection space is better for competition and therefore, better for enterprise customers.

True, Microsoft has a long way to go before its security offerings can be as rich and mature as the incumbents’ like Symantec and McAfee. The principle of competition, however, suggests that as Microsoft becomes a significant player in the space, it’s poised to trigger more innovation and better integration in the security market. This is what analysts are expecting to happen.

“Microsoft investing in its security products and competing in this market…forces the competitors to raise the level of their game and forces everybody to bring the possible best products to market,” said Carmi Levy, research analyst at Info-Tech Research in London, Ont.

At Microsoft’s Tech Ed 2006 event held in June, the Windows maker outlined its security strategy embodied in the new Microsoft Forefront brand, a family of security and access products across client, server and the network edge. The first of this series of security tools will be the Forefront Client Security for businesses, formerly the Microsoft Client Protection, which is scheduled for open beta in the latter part of 2006.

Microsoft recently launched the Antigen e-mail security product, which provides antivirus and content filtering for Exchange Server 2003 and 2000, Windows Server 2003 and Windows Server 2000 SMTP Gateways. Also launched this year was the Internet Security Acceleration Server 2006, an application layer edge-based firewall, VPN gateway and network caching server.

Also in the pipeline is Microsoft’s Forefront Security for Exchange Server and Forefront Security for SharePoint, coinciding with the release of Exchange Server 2007 and Office 2007. The upcoming Windows Server “Longhorn” release is also expected to ship with Microsoft’s Network Access Protection tool, which would give organizations better control of devices accessing their network.

Microsoft’s acquisitions in the past years also signaled the company’s serious movement towards the IT security arena.

In 2003, it acquired Romanian antivirus firm GeCAD Software and a year later, it bought anti-spyware vendor Giant Company Software. Last year, Microsoft acquired antivirus vendor Sybari Software Inc. and in May of this year announced its intention to purchase Whale Communications, an SSL VPN and application firewall provider.

If Microsoft’s track record in product development is any indication, the industry can expect the Redmond, Wash.-based software company to “invest whatever it takes” to achieve its goals in the security market, Levy pointed out.

“Microsoft has spent money on technologies that have taken years to come to fruition,” he said, citing the Xbox and the Windows Pocket PC Mobile products which he said have been money-losers for Microsoft, yet it continues to invest significantly in them.

“[Microsoft] feels it’s important to be in [these markets] so they’re willing to make that investment because they see the long-term payoff,” said Levy.

And it’s not expected to be a smooth ride for Microsoft either, according to Forrester analyst Natalie Lambert.

In a document entitled, Microsoft Poised to Take a Big Chunk of the Market, Lambert said the existing skepticism around Microsoft’s ability to secure its own operating system will make it difficult for the software firm to sell security solutions to businesses and consumers.

“Microsoft’s products will start off at a functional disadvantage, which competitors will take advantage of by accelerating their evolution toward integrated suites that manage a range of client and network security functions,” wrote Lambert.

Microsoft’s strength, however, will be on its products’ pricing and simplicity, ultimately offering customers with price points that “they won’t be able to refuse,” said Lambert.

Microsoft, however, looks at its security strategy not necessarily as a move to compete directly with incumbent security vendors, but as a response to customers clamouring for Microsoft to “get deeper into security,” said Derrick Wong, senior product manager for security at Microsoft Canada.

“We’re looking at it from the customers’ standpoint, offering a unified security service that can unify the management of security, servers, networking; that’s the direction of [our] products,” said Wong.

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