Is There Life Left for Sniffer?

Network General needs to bring Sniffer up to snuff for it to make a comeback.

It seems that everything old is new again, at least in the network monitoring world.

Network Associates Technology announced April 23 that it is spinning off its Sniffer business unit, a move expected to be completed next quarter.

Network Associates will become McAfee Inc. when the sale of the Sniffer unit, and the Sniffer product line, closes. Sniffer is being purchased by two groups of investors—Silver Lake Partners and Texas Pacific Group—that will roll the unit into a new organization called Network General Corp. About 450 Network Associates staffers are expected to go with Network General.

Sound familiar? Thats because the original Network General, Network General Co., merged in 1997 with McAfee Associates to form Network Associates.

Got all that?

When the smoke clears, I hope the reanimated Network General is able to elevate its once-vaunted protocol analysis technology and incorporate it into a wide range of network discovery and performance products, giving IT managers comprehensive insight into application performance and network security.

The biggest problem for the new Network General is that a lot has changed since the old Network General got lost in the merger shuffle.

For one thing, while the Sniffer protocol analyzer was the first of its kind, there are now numerous low-cost, high-value analyzers on the market. These include WildPackets EtherPeek and Network Instruments Observer families of products.

Moreover, Network Associates just kept pace with these competitors; it didnt set the pace. For example, instead of leading in the wireless protocol analyzer space, Sniffer was left to play "me, too" as WildPackets, Network Instruments and the vendor of one of my favorite products in this space, AirMagnet, jumped ahead.

/zimages/5/28571.gifTo read eWEEK Labs review of AirMagnets wireless network protocol analyzer, click here.

The biggest development, if you can call it that, for the Sniffer family was that its moniker became a common noun used to describe the product category—kind of like Kleenex.

Im a sucker for comebacks, but Network General and the Sniffer line are going to have to fight to earn my interest. Packet analysis is the heart of pretty much every security and performance measurement product available today. Everything from firewalls to intrusion prevention systems to application response systems examines packets to understand what is happening with network traffic. To be competitive, Network General will have to bolster the Sniffer family with the most wide-ranging protocol decodes; support for just about every transmission medium, speed and network environment (both LAN and WAN); and comprehensive expert advice.

Network General also must come up with compelling ways to use the bread-and-butter technology behind protocol analysis. It should consider providing traffic statistics along with configuration tuning suggestions so that IT managers can avoid security pitfalls.

Network General Corp. should definitely not revive the nearly extortionate pricing model that Network General Co. was widely known for. The new company should charge a premium price for Sniffer but only if the product includes prodigious amounts of expert consultation services covering customers old and new network equipment.

Indeed, protocol decodes must be coupled with expert understanding. IT managers should demand that any product bearing the Sniffer name include a service component that would advise rank-and-file IT staff on how to identify and troubleshoot problems.

In the meantime, the company that will be known as McAfee Inc. is focusing on the security market.

When the leaner McAfee hits the streets, after making additional cost-reduction moves, it will face serious competition from Symantec and intrusion prevention top dog Tipping Point. McAfee will likely leverage the spoils from its (nee Network Associates) earlier buy-up of Entercept Security Technologies and IntruVert Networks.

In the end, McAfee-branded products will have to speak for themselves. But after letting Sniffer fall from premier to pedestrian, Network Associates in the form of McAfee has a lot to prove.

Senior Analyst Cameron Sturdevant can be reached at cameron_sturdevant@ziffdavis.com.

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