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McAfee inside: How Intel bid could shake up IT security

By Network World Staff, Network World
August 20, 2010 09:04 AM ET

Network World - If Intel's bombshell bid last week to buy McAfee for $7.68 billion pans out, the companies pledge to bring an unprecedented level of embedded security to networked devices ranging from smartphones to servers, potentially changing the way in which security is delivered to enterprise IT shops.

Tech industry's M&As in 2010

Intel and McAfee have been working closely on a host of projects for 18 months and expect to show the first fruits of their labor early next year. Among other things, McAfee technology could complement Intel's existing hardware-based security and management technology, dubbed vPro.

While company officials wouldn't reveal details on what products might result, they did say that their combined hardware and software could be used to protect Internet-connected devices -- from handhelds to automated teller machines to cars -- from growing cyberthreats in a consistent manner.

McAfee CEO Dave DeWalt wrote in a blog post that the "current cybersecurity model isn't extensible across the proliferating spectrum of devices…. The industry needed a paradigm shift, incremental improvements can't bridge the opportunity gap." Intel CEO Paul Otellini got more specific at the acquisition press conference: "We believe that security will be most effective when enabled in hardware."

The combination of companies – McAfee would operate as a subsidiary within Intel's Software and Services Group -- could also open up new sales opportunities. "Everywhere we sell a microprocessor, there's an opportunity for a security suite," Otellini said of what would be the biggest deal in Intel's history. Though he stressed that Intel is open to working with other security companies as well. (A short history of Intel acquisitions.)

While it's not immediately clear what impact the deal will have on corporate customers, industry watchers weren't shy about issuing warnings.

"It scares me," says Gartner research director Peter Firstbrook, who worries about whether the deal will distract the Santa Clara security company from efforts such as uniting its assorted security projects under the ePolicy Orchestrator management system. He also has concerns for customers with heterogeneous hardware environments that Intel and McAfee technologies might become too entwined to the exclusion of others.

However, Firstbrook does acknowledge that McAfee could bring Intel R&D that will improve its processors and provide hooks into its hardware that could be exploited by McAfee and other security vendors.

Forrester analyst Andrew Jaquith questions the whole premise of tying security so tightly to hardware. "Most enterprises take the least-common-denominator approach to managing their computing assets,” he wrote in a blog post. "This is largely because refresh cycles cause hardware platforms to stick around much longer than software-based ones: it is easier to push down a software update than to pull a motherboard. I am not convinced that a hardware-based strategy for security will resonate with enterprise buyers. If you need convincing, ask yourself: how many of the PCs in your organization run Intel vPro-capable hardware? Don't know the answer? Right: this is exactly my point. Despite Intel's efforts to add more differentiating "professional" features on and around their core processor silicon, these are seen as a bonus, rather than the centerpiece of enterprise management strategies. It is hard to see how 'McAfee Inside' would work out any differently."

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