It would be an understatement to say that security solutions can be a little confusing. There are IT managers out there with premature grey hair or no hair at all, and a fair share have nightmares about being incinerated by firewalls.
The internet has had a lot to do with the increased need for complex security systems.
From firewalls, antivirus software and virtual private network (VPN) solutions to authentication, filtering, load-balancing and content management software, protection from the big bad world is high on the shopping list for companies of all sizes.
However, tying together all these solutions across different networks and operating systems has proved, for many, to be one part expertise to two parts black magic.
And don't forget the cost. Nothing in the world of IT security is ever as cheap as the price tag states, because everything requires careful specification, installation, configuration, monitoring, management, support and maintenance.
With the possible exception of security appliances, that is. Loosely defined, a security appliance is a dedicated security server, pre-loaded with a hardened operating system and a variety of security software.
Appliances combining firewall and VPN functionality are the most common, ranging from a few hundred pounds to really scary price tags.
The market is awash with appliances that have flavours for most security scenarios and budgets, and customers love them.
Currently growing faster than any other aspect of the security market, and possibly many other IT sectors, security appliances are a hardware and software marriage that actually works.
In a nutshell, appliances are the Red Bull 'delivery mechanism' of choice for security software solutions.
In 2002, analyst IDC claimed that the firewall/VPN hardware appliance market in western Europe was worth $430m, while the software firewall/VPN market was worth $240m.
Over the next five years, the compound annual growth rate for hardware appliances will be 27 per cent, while the software segment will grow at 10 per cent. And that's just one segment of the security appliance arena.
"We found that IT spending has been flat, but the security market is outperforming the software market overall," said Thomas Raschke, programme manager for security product and strategies at IDC.
"Companies are now spending most of their money on integration and security. Because of recent terrorist attacks, hacks and high-profile viruses, security is now discussed at board level. It is not just an IT concern.
"Within that, security appliances is one of the fastest growing markets and it is outgrowing the security market as a whole.
"The trend today is to move from software to hardware solutions because it is much easier to assemble security appliances than software-based security solutions. For customers, they are easier to manage and they usually outperform general server/software solutions."
David Ellis, director of e-security at distributor Unipalm, said: "The appliance sector has continued to grow despite the economy. The general security market has been pretty buoyant but the appliance market has grown even faster.
"Security is good not just because of 11 September, but because of hackers, viruses and the Data Protection Act coming into play.
"Companies are more dependent on their networks and data than ever and many are doing all they can to protect their systems."
Ian Kilpatrick, chairman of value-add security distributor Wick Hill, added: "Appliances are accounting for an increasing amount of our sales now and the percentage is growing.
"We've had to move to larger premises because our stockholding has trebled in a year, and all of that is appliances. Our sales in this sector have jumped by 100 per cent from what they were a year ago."
Appliances have done a lot towards making the protection process easier. A lot of the hassle traditionally associated with setting up and managing a security system has gone out of the window.
Plug and play they are not, but appliances are about as close to it as security solutions will ever come. Installation and configuration times are now more a matter of hours than days.
"Setting up firewalls used to be so difficult," recalled Hari Bhullar, technical security manager at distributor Ideal.
"The beauty of these appliances is that they come with wizards to help set them up. Appliances have become popular because they are an excellent way to implement the software, allowing for easy implementation and easier management.
"The fact that you can get some low-end devices in PC World shows how things have changed in security."
Speaking from the frontline, John Reeman, managing director of London-based security reseller Nebulas Security, said: "More and more people are moving to appliances because they are easier to deploy and manage, and the total cost of ownership is dramatically reduced because you don't have to employ someone who's an expert in a particular platform.
"Appliances have helped simplify things to an extent. They are not plug and play, but security is no longer seen as a black art.
"You are still going to need a security expert to design the solution, but once they are in they take care of themselves."
Ellis agreed. "Appliances have simplified certain aspects of security," he explained. "They have taken away the donkey work by saving people the trouble of sourcing a server, an operating system and the various security products, and the task of tying them all together.
"Everything is now in the box. That said, even the all-in-one appliances are not exactly plug and play. Like driving a sports car for the first time, there's every chance you will stall it or end up in a ditch.
"The software still has to be set up in the right way, whether it is an all-in-one appliance or not."
Despite its success, the appliance sector is continually shifting, and new products and players are the order of the day.
The all-in-one appliance has been a relatively recent phenomenon, extending capabilities beyond the usual firewall/VPN functions to include content management, email filtering, load balancing and antivirus software to name just a few.
"There is definitely convergence happening between products, which makes it much easier for companies to buy," said Raschke.
"Obviously, if they want best of breed they shouldn't go for these, but they are well suited to SMEs which still lack proper security.
"A lot of SMEs have just one guy taking care of the whole network and security is just a part of that.
"Hackers, however, launch programs that constantly probe for weak ports in a network, making it hard for network managers to cover everything. All-in-one appliances can help."
Ellis added: "All-in-one devices for SMEs are becoming very popular. They tend to offer 70 to 75 per cent of the features found in best of breed products for a tenth of the cost.
"There are still just a handful of vendors in this part of the appliance market. Most would admit that the products are not as complex as say, the Nokia/Check Point solutions, but then SMEs don't require that level of service."
There is plenty of space in the market for all-in-one appliances, according to Kilpatrick. "The market will grow quickly over the next few years. We have seen big interest not just from SMEs, but from large corporates and the education sector," he said.
There are any number of appliance flavours out there and the players entering the arena make up a diverse bunch.
Appliances first kicked off in the enterprise space with companies like Nokia and Check Point. Since then, the same enterprise appliances have started moving down the food chain as more and more companies recognise the cash cow that is the SME sector.
A rash of new appliance manufacturers with products targeted exclusively at the SME sector have been appearing at an alarming rate, while traditional security software firms like Symantec have started marketing appliances of their own.
Everyone wants a piece of the action, which means there are a lot of products and players jockeying for position. Security appliances might be a goldmine, but the market is far from mature.
Kilpatrick has been watching things develop over the years and still thinks there is a long way to go before anything even resembling maturity arrives.
"This market is not mature yet because there are new appliances arriving to tackle new security issues all of the time," he said.
"There are a lot of companies moving into this arena and some feel there are too many chasing too few pounds, but sales are still on the up.
"There is a crowd of firewall vendors trying to enter this space and they won't all succeed. Part of the consolidation happening now is through companies failing to succeed.
"Established security software companies are aiming to get appliance business by using their brand, but the sector is tough for general security providers.
"It's harder for them to focus properly on appliances and, if they don't segment their products for the right market, they won't succeed."
According to Reeman, however, consolidation will happen sooner rather than later. "In a way, there are too many hardware appliances out there," he explained.
"They are 10 a penny, not just in the SME space but in the small office/home office space as well. You can pick one up in PC World these days and they are simple to use.
"It's hard to compete in this market since there are hundreds of suppliers of these $500 appliances and they all do similar things. Consolidation in the SME space is on the way and I expect to see three or four big guys swallow them up."
Across the board, SMEs and large companies are investing in appliance-based security. Aside from the low entry-level cost for many of the newer appliances, they are attractive to companies with tiny budgets and to enterprises.
For the larger company with a security system already in place, appliances are seen as a cheap and efficient way of boosting what they have at HQ or, increasingly, a way of rolling out security to branch offices without the usual headaches.
For the SME, it's a cost-effective way to boost security that doesn't require much investment and has much lower ongoing maintenance and support costs than traditional solutions.
"At one end you have a guy opening a small office or home office who needs a simple security solution, followed by the SME needing a slightly more functional firewall/VPN appliance," said Kilpatrick.
"Then there's the enterprise that already has security in place, but is buying appliances because they are easier to deploy around the perimeter of the organisation, like branch offices.
"The common thread for all of these business is that appliances are easier to deploy, use and manage."
By already being a popular buy in so many different business spaces, appliances represent a great opportunity for specialist and general resellers alike.
"There is huge interest from resellers because they are getting a lot of enquiries about security," said Bhullar.
"Even better, any reseller that already has the skills needed to put in servers, small networks and PCs can pick up security appliances easily enough.
"The margin is still quite big for resellers and, even though the appliance market is getting crowded, I don't see prices falling too much. These devices have a lot of technology in them."
Ellis agrees. "There's good margin for resellers, not just on the product front but on the services side too," he said.
"The only downside of appliances is that the integration work needed to implement the software and hardware components of traditional security solutions has been taken away.
"That said, these devices still need to be implemented correctly and there is still pre- and post-sales support work to done."
The support revenues from appliances may seem lower on the face of it, but Kilpatrick thinks they merely shifted about.
"On the support front, appliances may take away the value-add revenues on the installation and configuration side, but it hasn't gone, just moved into a different space," he said.
"There's still a lot to be made from creating security policies and maintaining and supporting these appliances."
Despite the popularity of appliances, and the fevered growth of the market, this space is not yet mature. There is still room for new players looking to cash in on the boom.
Pros and cons of security appliances
Security appliances are not plug-and-play but are much easier to install and configure than software-based solutions.
Most appliances use chips known as ASICs, which are designed for a particular task. This makes them faster than regular chips when running security applications.
Ease of use
Appliances are easier to manage, doing away with the need for a security expert and helping network managers.
Appliances run a 'hardened' version of an operating system, which means that many of the vulnerabilities on a normal security server's OS have been removed in advance, making them more secure.
Because of the hardware element, appliances initially cost a bit more than a software-only solution.
Appliances are designed to address a certain number of security tasks - firewalls/virtual private networks, for instance - making them difficult to expand when implementing a new security application.
Some believe that putting all your security eggs in one appliance can mean trouble when that appliance goes down.
The benefits of appliances significantly outweigh the downsides, and customers are voting with their wallets. The initial cost penalty of appliances is more than cancelled out by the lower installation, configuration and running costs.
All-in-one devices are now arriving to offer a wider range of security applications in a single appliance, and many customers worried about availability simply choose to invest in a second appliance.
IDC (020) 8987 7100
Ideal (020) 8286 5000
Nebulas Security (020) 7654 0080
Unipalm (01638) 569 600
Wick Hill Group (01483) 227 600
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