Intel's McAfee Buyout to Bring Embedded Security to Universe of Smart Devices

News Analysis: Intel's purchase of McAfee could make security a ubiquitous feature across a wide variety of smart devices and consumer products.

Chip making giant Intel's purchase of security software producer McAfee is more than just the merger of two companies to make one larger company. It's also a strong sign that Intel has decided to take security to another level throughout its product line. In addition, it also shows that Intel is quietly preparing to take on Cisco as well as other networking and communications vendors by offering something unique and important.

One clue to Intel's direction is the company's recent purchase of Texas Instruments' cable modem business. When it did this, Intel also took on Cisco, which purchased Scientific Atlanta, another big provider of cable interface technology, a few years ago. For the most part, Cisco's acquisition has proven to be mostly invisible - Scientific Atlanta cable modems remain much the same as they were five years ago.

Now, Intel is throwing a new factor into the mix. Imagine, if you will, a cable modem that includes embedded security features such as a firewall, intrusion prevention and malware detection. McAfee already has the software technology to provide this capability, and it has the engineering chops. But of course, there's more to this than just really good cable modems. After all, Cisco could just as easily incorporate its existing firewall technology into its cable modems.

While making a security-aware cable modem could be a huge opportunity for Intel and its customers; remember that Intel makes a lot more than chips or even its newly acquired cable modem line. For years Intel has built everything from network appliances to contract processor boards that appear with other companies' brand names. What the purchase of McAfee does is give Intel a way to use in-house resources to incorporate security into just about everything it makes.

In addition, the acquisition means that McAfee can broaden its market to more than just personal computers and related products. Security is likely to become an issue to nearly any device that's connected to the Internet, from game consoles to Blu-ray players and television sets. Right now, an enterprising malware producer has virgin territory for the introduction of a botnet that uses, say, a WiFi-equipped video player. There's no firewall for these devices, they have more than one means of attack if they're also attached to the cable company's television service, and users have little control over how they function, what they're doing or what else is up with these devices.

You have, in some cases, a reasonably powerful computer with a large hard disk, a fast Internet connection, a fast cable connection and no significant means of monitoring. While you may call it a DVR, to a malware maker, it's an opportunity. But suppose that Intel, with its new McAfee subsidiary, has embedded security into the device? That would at least make an Intel cable device a less attractive target than one without embedded security.

By doing this, Intel can give itself a significant competitive advantage. Cable companies are, after all, usually ISPs in addition to being entertainment providers. To them, malware is at the very least, a significant cause of overhead because of increased traffic and a greater number of support calls. It's also a potential liability issue for them as users, especially small businesses, get attacked through their cable modems. Having real and capable embedded security is a benefit to everyone.

I'm sure the cable companies will argue that their networks are already secure. It's also true that some of them make an effort to prevent external attacks. But spend more than a few minutes monitoring the traffic coming in over a cable connection, and you'll start seeing the probes of malware traffic. It's because of this that I have a firewall running just inside my cable modem, for example.

As devices get smarter and as computing technology gets more widespread, so does the risk. So many devices are attached to the Internet now that even if general purpose computers magically became invulnerable, there would still be plenty of platforms out there to infect. Of course, computers aren't going to become invulnerable. Nor are distributors of malware ever going to stop trying. You can be sure the malware guys will decide that the vast, untapped field of connected devices is open to their attacks. Why waste your time with something that's well protected, when you have other options?

Intel's purchase of McAfee means that devices made by Intel, at least, may have some defense. While there's a lot to learn before we see how this acquisition shakes out, the rationale doesn't seem that strange. What we could be seeing is a move by Intel to make sure that the broad market for smart devices doesn't also become the next security battleground.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...