NAC Will Fill a Big IT Security Gap

Opinion: Some form of network access control needs to be at least in the works for any large network, and administrators should insist on standards compliance.

When Zotob and other worms attacked a Windows vulnerability in August, some (yeah, thats me) were surprised that large companies were affected. After all, even a simple firewall should have blocked the attack.

The problem was that many large corporate networks arent as controlled as youd think.

The most common explanation is of remote users and notebooks taken out of the office, infected outside the corporate LAN, and then brought back in either physically or through a VPN, there to dirty-up everyone else.

Everyone knows a lot of this goes on, but youll also find rogue access points and other policy cheats that end up compromising security.

Lets take the dirty notebook example: Lets face it, that notebook just shouldnt be allowed on the network unless its properly protected.

For this reason, numerous big names in security have been developing and pushing systems to check systems as the attach to the network, checking to see if they meet certain policy requirements, such as service pack and patch levels, personal anti-virus and firewall, and signatures up-to-date.

If they do meet these standards, they are allowed on the network. If not, they are placed in a quarantined segment from which they can do little other than remediate their problems, for instance by updating their anti-virus.

Some call this generic approach NAC (network access control), as distinguished from Ciscos specific implementation, Network Access Control program.

Im bullish on NAC, the general approach. Systems like this enforce rules that everyone knows are necessary.

I dont know of any studies in this regard, but I would think they tend to reduce support calls, which is another good thing.

Thus, I was excited to read that Juniper Networks is buying Funk Software for their network access security products.

/zimages/2/28571.gifClick here to read more about Junipers plan to buy Funk.

One of the really encouraging parts of this story is Junipers interest in the TCG (Trusted Computing Group)s Trusted Network Connect specification for NAC.

NAC is exactly the sort of feature that could benefit from open standards. Juniper wants to use these standards to build products with best-of-breed components and not be locked into a whole stack from one vendor.

Customers should expect no less. Proprietary NAC implementations, even if their specifications are open, are a mistake.

There needs to be one set of standards to follow so that agent management can be easy and so that ISVs can provide easier support for the system.

I actually think that some day ISPs might offer such a service, although it would be difficult.

It should be possible to offer Internet service protected by many of the more advanced security techniques available to corporate networks, and some customers might be willing to pay more for an Internet access service that is demonstrably safer.

There are definitely problems with such a scheme, begriming with the fact that corporate users arent usually allowed, as consumers are, to install whatever they please on their systems, and there probably wont be the option of IT coming to your home for network support.

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Part of the answer could be NAC with policies more restrictive than consumers are used to.

If the teenagers try to install Grokster, the system may lose its connection to the network.

I bet there are lots of parents who would not object to restrictive policies and opening up their systems to remote management. They might even pay more for it.

If youre shuddering at this vision of an "unfree" future, then take your business elsewhere when your ISP turns this switch, which is not likely and years away, even if it were to happen. Most people would view it as a solution to a real problem, though.

Yes, a world where NAC is standard and ubiquitous is one where we have less freedom to run whatever we want on the network.

But its not 1984, and a network where anyone can do what they want is a Hobbesian state of nature that repels all normal people. A good NAC system is a protection against anarchy.

Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983. He can be reached at

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