Following up on Rich’s FireStarter on Security Commoditization earlier today, I’m going to apply a number of these concepts to the network security space. As Rich mentioned innovation brings copycats, and with network-based application control we have seen them come out of the woodwork.

But this isn’t the first time we’ve seen this kind of innovation rapidly adopted within the network security market. We just need to jump into the time machine and revisit the early days of Unified Threat Management (UTM). Arguably, Fortinet was the early mover in that space (funny how 10 years of history provide lots of different interpretations about who/what was first), but in short order a number of other folks were offering UTM-like devices. At the same time the entrenched market leaders (read Cisco, Juniper, and Check Point) had their heads firmly in the sand about the need for UTM. This was predictable – why would they want to sell one box while they could still sell two?

But back to Rich’s question: Is this good for customers? We think commoditization is good, but even horribly over-simplified market segmentation provides different reasons.

Mid-Market Perimeter Commoditization Continues

Amazingly, today you can get a well-configured perimeter network security gateway for less than $1,000. This commoditization is astounding, given that organizations which couldn’t really afford it routinely paid $20,000 for early firewalls – in addition to IPS and email gateways. Now they can get all that and more for $1K.

How did this happen? You can thank your friend Gordon Moore, whose law made fast low-cost chips available to run these complicated software applications. Combine that with reasonably mature customer requirements including firewall/VPN, IDS/IPS, and maybe some content filtering (web and email) and you’ve nailed the requirements of 90%+ of the smaller companies out there. That means there is little room for technical differentiation that could justify premium pricing. So the competitive battle is waged with price and brand/distribution. Yes, over time that gets ugly and only the biggest companies with broadest distribution and strongest brands survive.

That doesn’t mean there is no room for innovation or new capabilities. Do these customers need a WAF? Probably. Could they use an SSL VPN? Perhaps. There is always more crap to put into the perimeter, but most of these organizations are looking to write the smallest check possible to make the problem go away. Prices aren’t going up in this market segment – there isn’t customer demand driving innovation, so the selection process is pretty straightforward. For this segment, big (companies) works. Big is not going away, and they have plenty of folks trained on their products. Big is good enough.

Large Enterprise Feature Parity

But in the large enterprise market prices have stayed remarkably consistent. I used the example of what customers pay for enterprise perimeter gateways as my main example during our research meeting hashing out commoditization vs. feature parity. The reality is that enterprises are not commodity driven. Sure, they like lower costs. But they value flexibility and enhanced functionality far more – quite possibly need them. And they are willing to pay.

You also have the complicating factor of personnel specialization within the large enterprise. That means a large company will have firewall guys/gals, IPS guys/gals, content security guys/gals, and web app firewall guys/gals, among others. Given the complexity of those environments, they kind of need that personnel firepower. But it also means there is less need to look at integrated platforms, and that’s where much of the innovation in network security has occurred over the last few years.

We have seen some level of new features/capabilities increasingly proving important, such as the move towards application control at the network perimeter. Palo Alto swam upstream with this one for years, and has done a great job of convincing several customers that application control and visibility are critical to the security perimeter moving forward. So when these customers went to renew their existing gear, they asked what the incumbent had to say about application control. Most lied and said they already did it using Deep Packet Inspection.

Quickly enough the customers realized they were talking about apple and oranges – or application control and DPI – and a few brought Palo Alto boxes in to sit next to the existing gateway. This is the guard the henhouse scenario described in Rich’s post. At that point the incumbents needed that feature fast, or risk their market share. We’ve seen announcements from Fortinet, McAfee, and now Check Point, as well as an architectural concept from SonicWall in reaction. It’s only a matter of time before Juniper and Cisco add the capability either via build or (more likely) buy.

And that’s how we get feature parity. It’s driven by the customers and the vendors react predictably. They first try to freeze the market – as Cisco did with NAC – and if that doesn’t work they actually add the capabilities. Mr. Market is rarely wrong over sufficient years.

What does this mean for buyers? Basically any time a new killer feature emerges, you need to verify whether your incumbent really has it. It’s easy for them to say “we do that too” on a PowerPoint slide, but we continue to recommend proof of concept tests to validate features (no, don’t take your sales rep’s word for it!) before making large renewal and/or new equipment purchases. That’s the only way to know whether they really have the goods.

And remember that you have a lot of leverage on the perimeter vendors nowadays. Many aggressive competitors are willing to deal, in order to displace the incumbent. That means you can play one off the other to drive down your costs, or get the new features for the same price. And that’s not a bad thing.