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Palo Alto PA-5060 is one fast firewall

But UTM, SSL features put a brake on performance

By David Newman, Network Test, Network World
August 22, 2011 12:06 AM ET

Network World - Palo Alto's new firewall delivered performance 10 times faster than when we tested in 2008, and came close to its rated capacity of 20Gbps in firewall-only mode, according to our exclusive Clear Choice testing.

Of course, there is always a tradeoff between security and performance. In the case of Palo Alto's PA-5060, it all depends on what features you turn on and off.

Palo Alto has shaken up the firewall market with its "application aware" feature, and we found that this next-generation capability carries no performance penalty. The PA-5060 does application-layer inspection by default.

On the other hand - and this is a pretty big caveat - UTM rates were nowhere near the device's stated 20Gbps limit. Performance was far lower with any UTM feature enabled than when the PA-5060 operated in firewall-only mode.

Regardless of which UTM features we enabled - intrusion prevention, antispyware, antivirus, or any combination of these - results were essentially the same as if we'd turned on just one such feature. Simply put, there's no extra performance cost, beyond the initial sharp drop in rates, for layering on multiple types of traffic inspection.

Rates also fell when the device handled SSL traffic. And when decrypting SSL traffic, the system's four 10-gigabit Ethernet interfaces ran at rates that would make Fast Ethernet aficionados smile.

Some of this is to be expected. All security devices slow down when handling SSL traffic, and we've seen far bigger drops, in percentage terms, when enabling UTM features.

Overall, we'd characterize the PA-5060 as a capable performer. While it offers many unique application-inspection capabilities, it doesn't quite do away with the perennial question about security-vs.-performance tradeoffs.

Web Metrics

Forwarding rate was the primary metric in our tests. We used both mixed and static HTTP loads to measure rates under various configurations, along with separate tests to assess performance for SSL traffic. We also verified the PA-5060's TCP connection capacity and connection setup rate.

The forwarding rate tests clearly show that the PA-5060, which can be equipped with up to four 10-Gbit/s interfaces, runs at least 10 times faster than earlier Palo Alto models.

In a test involving heavy Web traffic with a mix of content types and object sizes, the PA-5060 moved data at around 17Gbps when configured as a firewall.

That's a bit under the system's 20Gbps rated capacity, which isn't altogether surprising since such data-sheet numbers often are obtained using best-case conditions such as a single large object requested over and over.

In contrast, the traffic load we used involved a mix of text, images and binary content of various sizes - just the sort of Web traffic often seen on enterprise networks. The 17Gbps rate we saw in testing is probably a more meaningful predictor of performance on production networks.

The mixed traffic load offered here is identical to the one Network World's Joel Snyder used in his 2008 review of Palo Alto's PA-4020 firewall. In that test, the PA-4020 topped out at around 1.6Gbps (vs. of a rated capacity of 2.0 Gbps).

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