A closer look at UTM hardware architecture

This test showed that UTM firewalls come in all speeds, shapes and sizes.

One of the appliances we received was simply an off-the-shelf server (IBM’s System x3650). Other devices ranged from very lightly customized (Secure Computing put an IPS accelerator board and a customized BIOS in a Dell box to yield its Sidewinder 2150D) to the heavily engineered chassis found in the Juniper ISG-1000 and the Fortinet FortiGate 3600A. 

In general, though, firewall vendors have taken advantage of the enormous boon that Intel has provided in low-cost, high-performance CPUs that are aimed at general-purpose computing. Much of the customization in the devices we received was aimed at increasing port density and value engineering by removing parts (such as graphics adapters) that add cost but not value.

Tracking UTM Firewall hardware options

For the specific models of the UTM firewalls tested, both the hardware configurations as well as the possible options varied wildly. For testing, vendors selected their configurations.
VendorProductPorts (in Ethernet speeds unless noted)Power SuppliesExpansion SlotsOptions available to model tested
AstaroASG 425a6x1000,2xSFP10No options available
Check PointUTM-1 20504x1000,4x10010No options available
CiscoASA5540 with SSM-20 IPS module4x1000,1x10011IPS or A/V engine available
CrossbeamC2512x1000,1x10023Ability to swap and 4-port gigabit Ethernet module for a 4-port SFP or FailOpen IPS module.
FortinetFortiGate 3600A8x1000,2xSFP214-port SFP or storage module.
IBMSystem x36508-1000 as tested242X1000 or 4x1000
IBM/ISSProventia MX501010x100020No options available
Juniper NetworksISG-10004x1000122xSFPor 4xSFP, 4x100,2x1000
Juniper NetworksSSG-520M4x1000161x1000, 4x100, 8x1000,16x1000, 2xT1/E1, 1xT3/E3, 1xDSL, 6xSFP
NokiaIP2906x1000112x1000; 2x1000 FailOpen IPS
Secure ComputingSidewinder 2150D with IPS accel.8x10002212x1000
SonicWALLPRO 50606x100010No options available
WatchGuardFirebox Peak X8500e8x100010No options available

Starting from the ground up, power options abound as the Crossbeam C25, FortiGate 3600A, IBM System x3650, IBM/ISS Proventia MX5010, and Secure Computing Sidewinder 2150D all sport two power supplies, either as an option or as part of the base configuration. Although two power supplies make a system less efficient in its use of electricity (see UTM power-consumption story), they do guard against one of the most common failures: accidentally unplugging the wrong system.

The same is true of slots. With most of these devices coming out of the box with at least four, Gigabit Ethernet ports as well as VLAN support, having expansion slots may be overkill, although it does give you a lot of options. Consider the Juniper SSG-520M, which lets you pick from 16 expansion cards, including WAN and DSL interfaces.

Crossbeam and Nokia also offered “failopen” Ethernet cards, which pass traffic through in the event of total system failure. You wouldn’t want “failopen” for a normal firewall, but these can be useful in an IPS deployment where the firewall features are secondary or simply “defense in depth” backups.

The only system that fell below our base expectations for its hardware flexibility was the IBM/ISS Proventia MX5010, which has no VLAN support.

Early firewall hardware wars saw vendors touting their expensive custom devices have fallen off as the use of high-speed Intel server CPUs and open source Unix kernels make it simpler for UTM vendors to add third-party packages, such as antivirus or Web filtering, to these systems. Nevertheless, there is still some jostling to be done. 

For example, Juniper told us that “in the future” it would be releasing an update to the ISG-1000 (an ASIC-based firewall) that would double its firewall performance. That’s a nice gift for buyers who committed to the ISG-1000, the oldest platform in our test, if Juniper can do it. Fortinet didn’t make a direct promise, but also hinted that its custom network processor and content processor devices would give them the ability tune performance over time.

Learn more about this topic

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