FireStarter: Why You Care about Security Commoditization

This is the first in a series we will be posting this week on security markets. In the rest of this series we will look at individual markets, and discuss how these forces work to help with buying decisions. Catching up with recent news, Check Point has joined the crowd and added application control as a new option on their gateway products. Sound like you’ve heard this one before? That’s because this function was pioneered by Palo Alto, then added by Fortinet and even Websense (on their content gateways). Yet again we see multiple direct and indirect competitors converge on the same set of features. Feature parity can be problematic, because it significantly complicates a customer’s ability to differentiate between solutions. I take a ton of calls from users who ask, “should I buy X or Y” – and I’m considerate enough to mute the phone so they don’t hear me flipping my lucky coin. During last week’s Securosis research meeting we had an interesting discussion on the relationship between feature parity, commoditization, and organization size. In nearly any market – both security and others – competitors tend to converge on a common feature set rather than run off in different innovative directions. Why? Because that’s what the customers think they need. The first mover with the innovative feature makes such a big deal of it that they manage to convince customers they need the feature (and that first product), so competitors in that market must add the feature to compete. Sometimes this feature parity results in commoditization – where prices decline in lockstep with the reduced differentiation – but in other cases there’s only minimal impact on price. By which I mean the real price, which isn’t always what’s advertised. What we tend to find is that products targeting small and mid-sized organizations become commoditized (prices and differentiation drop); but those targeting large organizations use feature parity as a sales, upgrade, and customer retention tool. So why does this matter to the average security professional? Because it affects what products you use and how much you pay for them, and because understanding this phenomenon can make your life a heck of a lot easier. Commoditization in the Mid-Market First let’s define organization size – we define ‘mid’ as anything under about 5,000 employees and $1B in annual revenue. If you’re over $1B you’re large, but this is clearly a big bucket. Very large tends to be over 50K employees. Mid-sized and smaller organizations tend to have more basic needs. This isn’t an insult, it’s just that the complexity of the environment is constrained by the size. I’ve worked with some seriously screwed up mid-sized organizations, but they still pale in comparison to the complexity of a 100K + employee multinational. This (relative) lack for complexity in the mid-market means that when faced with deciding among a number of competing products – unless your situation is especially wacky – you pick the one that costs less, has the easiest management interface (reducing the time you need to spend in the product), or simply strikes your fancy. As a result the mid-market tends to focus on the lowest cost of ownership: base cost + maintenance/support contract + setup cost + time to use. A new feature only matters if it solves a new problem or reduces costs. Settle down, mid-market folks! This isn’t an insult. We know you like to think you are different and special, but you probably aren’t. Since mid-market customers have the same general needs and desire to save costs, vendors converge on the lowest common denominator feature set and shoot for volume. They may keep one-upping each other with prettier dashboards or new tweaks, but unless those result in filling a major need or reducing cost, they can’t really charge a lot more for them. Will you really pay more for a Coke than a Pepsi? The result is commoditization. Not that commoditization is bad – vendors make it up in volume and lower support costs. I advise a ton of my vendor clients to stop focusing on the F100 and realize the cash cow once they find the right mid-market product fit. Life’s a lot easier when you don’t have 18-month sales cycles, and don’t have to support each F100 client with its own sales team and 82 support engineers. Feature Parity in the Large Enterprise Market This doesn’t really play out the same when playing with the big dogs. Vendors still tend to converge on the same feature sets, but it results in less overt downward price pressure. This is for a couple reasons: Larger organizations are more locked into products due to higher switching costs. In such complex environments, with complicated sales cycles involving multiple competitors, the odds are higher that one niche feature or function will be critical for success, making effective “feature equivalence” much tougher for competitors. I tend to see switching costs and inertia as the biggest factor, since these products become highly customized in large environments and it’s hard to change existing workflows. Retraining is a bigger issue, and a number of staff specialize in how the vendor does things. These aren’t impossible to change, but make it much harder to embrace a new provider. But vendors add the features for a reason. Actually, 3 reasons: Guard the henhouse: If a new feature is important enough, it might cause either a customer shift (loss), or more likely in the customer deploying a competitive product in parallel for a while – vendors, of course, are highly motivated to keep the competition away from their golden geese. Competitive deployments, either as evaluations or in small niche roles, substantially raise the risk of losing the customer – especially when the new sales guy offers a killer deal. Force upgrade: The new features won’t run on existing hardware/software, forcing the customers to upgrade to a new version. We have seen a number of infrastructure providers peg new features to the latest codebase or appliance,

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Commoditization and Feature Parity on the Perimeter

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. Share:

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When Writing on iOS Security, Stop Asking AV Vendors Whether Apple Should Open the Platform to AV

A long title that almost covers everything I need to write about this article and many others like it. The more locked down a platform, the easier it is to secure. Opening up to antivirus is about 987 steps down the priority list for how Apple could improve the (already pretty good) iOS security. You want email and web filtering for your iPhone? Get them from the cloud… Share:

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Tokenization Topic Roundup

Tokenization has been one of our more interesting research projects. Rich and I thoroughly understood tokenization server functions and requirements when we began this project, but we have been surprised by the depth of complexity underlying the different implementations. The variety of variations and different issues that reside ‘under the covers’ really makes each vendor unique. The more we dig, the more interesting tidbits we find. Every time we talk to a vendor we learn something new, and we are reminded how each development team must make design tradeoffs to get their products to market. It’s not that the products are flawed – more that we can see ripples from each vendor’s biggest customers in their choices, and this effect is amplified by how new the tokenization market still is. We have left most of these subtle details out of this series, as they do not help make buying decisions and/or are minutiae specific to PCI. But in a few cases – especially some of Visa’s recommendations, and omissions in the PCI guidelines, these details have generated a considerable amount of correspondence. I wanted to raise some of these discussions here to see if they are interesting and helpful, and whether they warrant inclusion in the white paper. We are an open research company, so I am going to ‘out’ the more interesting and relevant email. Single Use vs. Multi-Use Tokens I think Rich brought this up first, but a dozen others have emailed to ask for more about single use vs. multi-use tokens. A single use token (terrible name, by the way) is created to represent not only a specific sensitive item – a credit card number – but is unique to a single transaction at a specific merchant. Such a token might represent your July 4th purchase of gasoline at Shell. A multi-use token, in contrast, would be used for all your credit card purchases at Shell – or in some models your credit card at every merchant serviced by that payment processor. We have heard varied concerns over this, but several have labeled multi-use tokens “an accident waiting to happen.” Some respondents feel that if the token becomes generic for a merchant-customer relationship, it takes on the value of the credit card – not at the point of sale, but for use in back-office fraud. I suggest that this issue also exists for medical information, and that there will be sufficient data points for accessing or interacting with multi-use tokens to guess the sensitive value it represents. A couple other emails complained that inattention to detail in the token generation process make attacks realistic, and multi-use tokens are a very attractive target. Exploitable weaknesses might include lack of salting, using a known merchant ID as the salt, and poor or missing of initialization vectors (IVs) for encryption-based tokens. As with the rest of security, a good tool can’t compensate for a fundamentally flawed implementation. I am curious what you all think about this. Token Distinguishability In the Visa Best Practices guide for tokenization, they recommend making it possible to distinguish between a token and clear text PAN data. I recognize that during the process of migrating from storing credit card numbers to replacement with tokens, it might be difficult to tell the difference through manual review. But I have trouble finding a compelling customer reason for this recommendation. Ulf Mattsson of Protegrity emailed me a couple times on this topic and said: This requirement is quite logical. Real problems could arise if it were not possible to distinguish between real card data and tokens representing card data. It does however complicate systems that process card data. All systems would need to be modified to correctly identify real data and tokenised data. These systems might also need to properly take different actions depending on whether they are working with real or token data. So, although a logical requirement, also one that could cause real bother if real and token data were routinely mixed in day to day transactions. I would hope that systems would either be built for real data, or token data, and not be required to process both types of data concurrently. If built for real data, the system should flag token data as erroneous; if built for token data, the system should flag real data as erroneous. Regardless, after the original PAN data has been replaced with tokens, is there really a need to distinguish a token from a real number? Is this a pure PCI issue, or will other applications of this technology require similar differentiation? Is the only reason this problem exists because people aren’t properly separating functions that require the token vs. the value? Exhausting the Token Space If a token format is designed to preserve the last four real digits of a credit card number, that only leaves 11-12 digits to differentiate one from another. If the token must also pass a LUHN check – as some customers require – only a relatively small set of numbers (which are not real credit card numbers) remain available – especially if you need a unique token for each transaction. I think Martin McKey or someone from RSA brought up the subject of exhausting the token space, at the RSA conference. This is obviously more of an issue for payment processors than in-house token servers, but there are only so many numbers to go around, and at some point you will run out. Can you age and obsolete tokens? What’s the lifetime of a token? Can the token server reclaim and re-use them? How and when do you return the token to the pool of tokens available for (re-)use? Another related issue is token retention guidelines for merchants. A single use token should be discarded after some particular time, but this has implications on the rest of the token system, and adds an important differentiation from real credit card numbers with (presumably) longer lifetimes. Will merchants be able to disassociate the token used for

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iOS Security: Challenges and Opportunities

I just posted an article on iOS (iPhone/iPad) security that I’ve been thinking about for a while over at TidBITS. Here are excerpts from the beginning and ending: One of the most controversial debates in the security world has long been the role of market share. Are Macs safer because there are fewer users, making them less attractive to serious cyber-criminals? Although Mac market share continues to increase slowly, the answer remains elusive. But it’s more likely that we’ll see the answer in our pockets, not on our desktops. The iPhone is arguably the most popular phone series on the face of the planet. Include the other iOS devices – the iPad and iPod touch – and Apple becomes one of the most powerful mobile device manufacturers, with over 100 million devices sold so far. Since there are vastly more mobile phones in the world than computers, and since that disparity continues to grow, the iOS devices become far more significant in the big security picture than Macs. … Security Wins, For Now – In the overall equation of security risks versus advantages, Apple’s iOS devices are in a strong position. The fundamental security of the platform is well designed, even if there is room for improvement. The skill level required to create significant exploits for the platform is much higher than that needed to attack the Mac, even though there is more motivation for the bad guys. Although there have been some calls to open up the platform to additional security software like antivirus tools (mostly from antivirus vendors), I’d rather see Apple continue to tighten down the screws and rely more on a closed system, faster patching rate, and more sandboxing. Their greatest opportunities for improvement lie with increased awareness, faster response (processes), and greater realization of the potential implications of security exposures. And even if Apple doesn’t get the message now, they certainly will the first time there is a widespread attack. Share:

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