Virtual private networks (VPNs) provide leased line-like security over the public Internet and other IP-based networks. There are two main types of VPNs: Secure socket layer (SSL) VPNs primarily support mobile devices, while Internet security VPNs (IPSec VPNs) are favored if the device being connected to is at a branch office, telecommuter's desk or other relatively stationary locale.
The two approaches work in significantly different ways and, consequently, have different advantages and flaws. SSL VPNs have been the sector's darlings for a couple of years. Last year, Microsoft bought SSL provider Whale Communications. This InformationWeek story says Redmond is combining the Whale technology with its Internet Security and Acceleration Server (ISA). The combined product is the Intelligent Application Gateway 2007 (IAG 2007). Celestix Networks and Network Engines will be the first companies to produce the appliances. End users will access the VPNs on a per-seat basis.
This is good news. Microsoft's unique and typically aggressive pricing structure will push the category. It's axiomatic, of course, that when Microsoft enters a market good things happen for customers -- even those who buy gear from competitors. For all the shots people take at the vendor, the reality is that they know how to shake things up.
We're not engineers, so we can't judge how Microsoft's technology stacks up against other vendors in the sector, which include Aventail, SonicWALL, Cisco, Juniper Networks and Array Networks. We are sure of one thing, however: The broadening of the VPN software category will improve Internet security in general.
It will be interesting to see if a relationship develops between IAG 2007 and Windows Live OneCare, the consumer security business that Microsoft launched last year. We hope one does emerge. E-commerce suffers if consumers are afraid that their connections aren't secure. Poorly protected consumer machines also are fodder for botnets and other exploits that target corporate networks.
If the entry of Microsoft means anything, it's that SSL VPN will become an increasingly common tool.