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Palo Alto Networks launches next-generation firewall

New company takes on Check Point, Cisco, Juniper

By , Network World
June 21, 2007 11:37 AM ET

Network World - Palo Alto Networks is a start-up with a big goal: replacing traditional network-layer perimeter firewalls altogether.

The company expects most customers will first install its PA-4000 series, next-generation firewalls to supplement their existing firewalls. Then, as users come to trust Palo Alto over time, they will swap out their old firewalls.

PA-4000 devices perform deep packet inspection on traffic originating in business networks that is perhaps destined for servers outside the company. The devices identify what applications are running on the network and apply filters based on them.

PROFILE: Palo Alto Networks

Alviso, Calif.
Founded: 2005
Funding: $27.4 million through B series from Globespan Capital Partners, Greylock Partners and Sequoia Capital.
Founders: CEO Dave Stevens (former VP of business development for Brocade); CTO Nir Zuk, (former CTO of NetScreen).
Employees: 45
Products: PA-4000 series next generation perimeter firewalls that filter by application in addition to traditional network-layer firewall screening.
Competitors: Check Point, Cisco, Juniper and other traditional firewall vendors.
Fun fact: When pressured by the incorporation lawyer to come up with a company name before the end of the Delaware business day, he came up with the name of the city he lives in.
Click to see: Palo Alto profile

Traditional firewalls from Check Point Software, Cisco and Juniper Networks identify applications by the protocols and ports they use, so they cannot distinguish among the many Web applications running through ports 80 and 443, says Rob Whiteley, an analyst with Forrester Research. The Palo Alto gear can distinguish particular applications within Web traffic and filter them.

PA-4000 appliances, for example, can distinguish between Yahoo Mail and corporate e-mail and allow both but block attachments from the Yahoo Mail, Palo Alto says.

Traditional firewall vendors lash together their firewalls and intrusion-prevention systems (IPS) in single devices to offer features similar to those in PA-4000s, says Greg Young, a research vice president with Gartner. These products are not truly integrated, however, he says. Rather, the firewalls and IPSs within these devices pass traffic back and forth and perform their separate functions.

Palo Alto gear can proxy SSL traffic, terminating and decrypting sessions so the content can be inspected and filtered. Traditional firewalls and IPSs that don’t decrypt SSL have no way of screening the content. “IPSs and firewalls are blind to SSL,” says Young. “And SSL traffic is increasing.”

Customers can configure what SSL traffic is decrypted in Palo Alto gear and what traffic is allowed to pass through. For instance, a business might want to inspect SSL traffic bound for a known competitor, but not inspect SSL traffic to a savings and loan, where an employee probably is checking on a bank statement.

Palo Alto acknowledges that customers may be reluctant to trust their equipment right away, so it has three deployment options. First, the gear can be deployed out-of-band to monitor traffic and give customers an accounting of the applications that are running on the network.

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