A response to Stiennon’s analysis of Palo Alto Networks

I was dismayed to read Richard Stiennon’s article in Forbes, Tearing away the veil of hype from Palo Alto Networks’ IPO. I will say my knowledge of network security and experience with Palo Alto Networks appear to be very different from Stiennon’s.

Full disclosure, my company has been a Palo Alto Networks partner for about four years. I noticed on Stiennon’s LinkedIn biography that he worked for one of PAN’s competitors, Fortinet. I don’t own any of the stocks individually mentioned in Stiennon’s article, although from time to time, I own mutual funds that might. Finally, I am planning on buying PAN stock when they go public.

Let me first summarize my key concerns and then I will go into more detail:

  • Stiennon overstates and IMHO misleads the reader about the functionality of stateful inspection firewall technology. While he seems to place value in it, he fails to mention what security risks they can actually mitigate in today’s environment.
  • He does not seem to understand the difference between UTMs and Next Generation Firewalls (NGFW). UTMs combine multiple functions on an appliance with each function processed independently and sequentially, and each managed with a separate user interface. NGFWs integrate multiple functions which share information, execute in parallel, and are managed with a unified interface. These differences result in dramatically different risk mitigation capabilities.
  • He does not seem to understand Palo Alto Networks unique ability to reduce attack surfaces by enabling a positive control model (default deny) from the network layer up through the application layer.
  • He seems to have missed the fact that Palo Alto Networks NGFWs were designed from the ground up to deliver Next Generation Firewall capabilities while other manufacturers have simply added features to their stateful inspection firewalls
  • He erroneously states that Palo Alto Networks does not have stateful inspection capabilities. It does and is backwards compatible with traditional stateful inspection firewalls to enable conversions.
  • He claims that Palo Alto Networks uses a lot of third party components when in fact there are only two that I am aware of. And he completely ignores several of Palo Alto Networks latest innovations including Wildfire and GlobalProtect.
  • He missed the reason why Palo Alto Networks Jan 2012 quarter revenue was slightly lower than its Oct 2011 quarter which was clearly stated in the S-1.

Here are my detailed comments.

Stateful inspection is a core functionality of firewalls introduced by Check Point Software over 15 years ago. It allows an inline gateway device to quickly determine, based on a set policy, if a particular connection is allowed or denied. Can someone in accounting connect to Facebook? Yes or no.

The bolded sentence is misleading and wrong in the context of stateful inspection. Stateful inspection has nothing to do with concepts like who is in accounting or whether the session is attempting to connect to Facebook. Stateful Inspection is purely a Layer 3/Layer 4 technology and defines security policies based on Source IP, Destination IP, Source Port, Destination Port, and network protocol, i.e. UDP or TCP.

If you wanted to implement a stateful inspection firewall policy that says Joe in accounting cannot connect to Facebook, you would first have to know the IP address of Joe’s device and the IP address of Facebook. Of course this presents huge administrative problems because somebody would have to keep track of this information and the policy would have to be modified if Joe changed locations. Not to mention the huge number of policy rules that would have to be written for all the possible sites Joe is allowed to visit. No organization I have ever known would attempt to control Joe’s access to Facebook using stateful inspection technology.

Since the early 2000s, hundreds and hundreds of applications have been written, including Facebook and its subcomponents, that no longer obey the “rules” that were in place in the mid-90s when stateful inspection was invented. At that time, when a new application was built, it would be assigned a specific port number that only that application would use. For example, email transport agents using SMTP were assigned Port 25. Therefore the stateful inspection firewall policy implementer could safely control access to the email transport service by defining policies using Port 25.

At present, the usage of ports is totally chaotic and abused by malicious actors. Applications share ports. Applications hop from port to port looking for a way to bypass stateful inspection firewalls. Cyber predators use this weakness of stateful inspection for their gain and your loss. Of course the security industry understood this issue and many new types of network security device types were invented and added to the network as Stiennon acknowledges.

But, inspecting 100% of traffic to implement these advanced capabilities is extremely stressful to the appliance, all of them still use stateful inspection to keep track of those connections that have been denied. That way the traffic from those connections does not need to be inspected, it is just dropped, while approved connections can still be filtered by the enhanced capability of these Unified Threat Management (UTM) devices (sometimes called Next  Generation Firewalls (NGFW), a term coined by Palo Alto Networks).

The first bolded phrase is true when a manufacturer adds advanced capabilities like application identification to an existing appliance. Palo Alto Networks understood this and designed an appliance from the ground up specifically to implement these advanced functions under load with low latency.

In the second bolded phrase, Steinnon casually lumps together the terms UTMs and Next Generation Firewalls as if they are synonymous. They are not. While it is true that Palo Alto Networks coined the term Next Generation Firewalls, it only became an industry defined term when Gartner published a research paper in October, 2009 (ID Number G00171540) and applied a rigorous definition.

The key point is that a next generation firewall provides fully integrated Application Awareness and Intrusion Prevention with stateful inspection. Fully integrated means that (1) the application identification occurs in the firewall which enables positive traffic control from the network layer up through the application layer, (2) all intrusion prevention is applied to the resulting allowed traffic, (3) all this is accomplished in a single pass to minimize latency, and (4) there is a unified interface for creating firewall policies. Running multiple inspection processes sequentially, controlled by independently defined policies results in increased latency and excessive use of security management resources, thus not qualifying as a Next Generation Firewall

But PAN really has abandoned stateful inspection, at a tremendous cost to their ability to establish connections fast enough to address the needs of large enterprises and carriers.

This is simply false. Palo Alto Networks supports standard stateful inspection for two purposes. First to ease the conversion process from a traditional stateful inspection firewall. Most of our customers start by converting their existing stateful inspection firewall policy rules and then they add the more advanced NGFW functions.

Second, the use of ports in policies can be very useful when combined with application identification. For example, you can build a policy that says (a) SMTP can run only on port 25 and (b) only SMTP can run on port 25. The first part (a) assures that if SMTP is detected on any of the other 65,534 ports it will be blocked. This means that no cyber predator can set up an email service on any of your non-SMTP servers. The second part (b) says that no other application besides SMTP can run on port 25. Therefore when you open a port for a specific application, you can assure it will be the only application running on that port. Palo Alto Networks can do this because its core functionality monitors all 65,535 ports for all applications all the time.

Steinnon then goes on to quote Bob Walder of NSS Labs and interprets his statement as follows:

In other words, an enterprise deploying PAN’s NGFW is getting full content inspection all the time with no ability to turn it off. That makes the device performance unacceptable as a drop-in replacement for Juniper, Cisco, Check Point, or Fortinet firewalls.

This statement has no basis in facts that I am aware of. Palo Alto Firewalls are used all the time to replace the above mentioned companies’ firewalls. Palo Alto has over 6,500 customers! Does full packet inspection take more resources than simple stateful inspection? Of course. But that misses the point. As I said above, stateful inspection is completely useless at providing an organization a Positive Enforcement Model, which after all is the sine qua non of a firewall. By Positive Enforcement Model, I mean the ability to define what is allowed and block everything else. This is also described as “default deny.”

Furthermore, based on my experience, in a bake-off situaton where the criteria  are a combination of real-world traffic, real-world security policy requirements designed to mitigate defined high risks, and total cost of ownership, Palo Alto Networks will always win. I’ll go a step further and say that in today’s world there is simply no significant risk mitigation value for traditional stateful inspection.

It’s the application awareness feature. This is where PAN’s R&D spending is going. All the other features made possible by their hardware acceleration and content inspection ability are supported by third parties who provide malware signatures and URL databases of malicious websites and categorization of websites by type. 

This is totally wrong. In fact, the URL filtering database and the end point checking host software in GlobalProtect (explained further on) are the only third party components Palo Alto Network uses that I am aware of. PAN built a completely new firewall engine capable of performing stateful inspection (for backward compatibility and for highly granular policies described above), application control, anti-virus, anti-spyware, anti-malware, and URL Filtering in a single pass. PAN writes all of its malware signatures and of course participates in security intelligence sharing arrangements with other companies.

Palo Alto Networks has further innovated with (1) Wildfire which provides the ability to analyze executables being downloaded from the Internet to detect zero-day attacks, and (2) GlobalProtect which enables remote and mobile users to stay under the control and protection of PAN NGFWs.

While anecdotal, the reports I get from enterprise IT professionals are that PAN is being deployed behindexisting (sic) firewalls. If that is the general case PAN is not the Next Generation Firewall, it is a stand alone technology that provides visibility into application usage.  Is that new? Not really. Flow monitoring technology has been available for over a decade from companies like Lancope and Arbor Networks that provides this visibility at a high level. Application fingerprinting was invented by SourceFire and is the basis of their RNA product.

Wow. Let me try to deconstrust this. First, it is true that some companies start by putting Palo Alto Networks behind existing firewalls. Why not? I see this as an advantage for PAN as it gives organizations the ability to leverage PAN’s value without waiting until it’s time to do a firewall refresh. Also PAN can replace a proxy to improve content filtering. I’ll save the proxy discussion for another time. I am surely not privy to PAN’s complete breakdown of installation architectures, but “anecdotally” I would say most organizations are doing straight firewall replacements.

Much more importantly, the idea of doing application identification in an IPS or in a flow product totally misses the point. Palo Alto Networks ships the only firewall that does it to enable positive control (default deny) from the network layer up through the application layer. I am surely not saying that there is no value in adding application awareness to IPSs or flow products. There is. But IPSs use a negative control model, i.e. define what should be blocked and allow everything else. Firewalls are supposed to provide attack surface reduction and cannot unless they are able to exert positive control.

While I will agree that application identification and the ability to enforce policies that control what applications can be used within the enterprise is important I contend that application awareness is ultimately a feature that belongs in a UTM appliance or stand alone device behind the firewall. Like other UTM features it must be disabled for high connection rate environments such as large corporate gateways, data centers, and within carrier networks.

This may be Stiennon’s opintion, but I would ask, what meaningful risks, besides not meeting the requirements of a compliance regime, does a stateful inspection firewall mitigate considering the ease with which attackers can bypass them? I have nothing against compliance requirements per se, but our focus is on information security risk mitigation.

In the three months ending Jan. 31 2012 PAN’s revenue is off from the previous quarter. The fourth quarter is usually the best quarter for technology vendors. There may be some extraordinary situation that accounts for that, but it is not evident in the S-1

There is no denying that year-over-year PAN has been on a tear, almost doubling its revenue from Q4 2010 to Q4 2011. But the glaring fact is that PAN’s revenue growth has completely stalled out in what was a great quarter for the industry.

Perhaps my commenting on these last paragraphs does not belong in this blog post as they are not technical in nature, but IMHO Stiennon is wrong again. Stiennon glosses over the excellent quarter that preceded the last one where PAN grew its revenue from $40.22 million to $57.11 million. Thus the last quarter’s $56.68 million looks to Stiennon like a stall with no explanation. However, here is the exact quote from the S-1 explaining what happened, “For the three month period ended October 31, 2011, the increase in product revenue was driven by strong performance in our federal business, as a result of improved productivity from our expanded U.S. government sales force and increased U.S. government spending at the end of its September 30 fiscal year.” My translation from investment banker/lawyer speak to English is that PAN did so well with the Federal government that quarter that the following quarter suffered by comparison. I could be wrong.

In closing, let me say I fully understand that there is no single silver bullet in security. Our approach is about balancing resources among Prevention, Detection, and Incident Response controls. There is never enough budget to implement every technical control that mitigates some risk. The exercise is to prioritize the selection of controls within budget constraints to provide the maximum information security risk reduction based on an organization’s understanding of its risks. While these priorities vary widely among organizations, I can confidently say that based on my experience, Palo Alto Networks provides the best network-based, Prevention Control, risk mitigation available today. Its, yes, revolutionary technology is well worth investing time to understand.

 

 

 

About Bill Frank

Principal at Cymbel. 25+ years in IT. Specialist in information security since 1999, helping organizations mitigate the risks of modern malware. @riskpundit http://www.linkedin.com/in/riskpundit

Comments

  1. I have been using SMB level firewalls for years. Ask around as to which firewalls consultants, who see a large number of FWs in the field, like and dislike and why. I guarantee you will hear a lot of complaints about the big players and their usability. You will also hear that very few have seen a PAN in the field.

    I recently purchased a Palo Alto. Bottom line is nothing else I have seen compares, at least for an SMB “jack of all trades”. Throughput is certainly is not an issue as it runs better than the, over powered, proxy based XTM 820 system I inherited.

    The PAN advantage is real.
    Bob

  2. Matthew Ancelin says:

    So I wonder if Forbes would post a retraction in the next issue? With so many glaring mistakes, how can Forbes maintain journalistic integrity if they dont retract?

  3. I agree with Bob’s assessment as well as the authors comments. Stiennon obviously has no personal experience with a Palo Alto NGFW. My experience is it’s the ONLY true NGFW and also that it doesn’t slow down even with all the signatures turned on. Instead of putting lipstick on the same old pig (old firewalls and UTM), the only way other companies have a shot at doing what Palo Alto is doing is to do what Palo Alto has already done, design one from the ground up. Good luck folks!

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