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Cisco impresses with first crack at next-gen firewall

Joel Snyder | June 18, 2013
Cisco ASA CX delivers strong application awareness; weaknesses in management, integration and threat mitigation are being addressed

But Cisco also promised us that it was serious about a unified management system that would bring ASA and next-gen features together in a single GUI before the end of 2013. Even if the security features are run by very separate policy engines, good policy management tools can give a unified experience to security managers building firewall policies.  

But in the current Version 9.1 we tested, network managers will be very aware that there are two distinct policy engines at work. The ASA's next-generation features don't even share an IP address with the base ASA firewall — next-gen policies are configured using Cisco Prime Security Manager (PRSM), a completely different management system from the ASA firewall's Adaptive Security Device Manager (ASDM).

The basic ASA firewall is still handling access control, NAT and VPN. To enable next-generation features, an entry is made in Service Rules, part of the Modular Policy Framework, that defines which traffic is sent over to the CX part of the firewall. This means that any traffic has to be passed first by the normal access control rules, and then is subject to additional checks and controls based on application and user identification information.   

As each connection passes through the CX engine, three different policies come into play. First, the CX engine decodes SSL. Next, it ties user authentication information to the connection. And finally, the access control policies are applied, blocking or allowing the connection based on user identification and application-layer information (including application id, application type, and URL category) and user identification.

Although most application identification and controls are in the new CX policy set, they're not all there — everything added to the ASA before CX as part of the Modular Policy Framework is still down in the core ASA. This leads to some overlap and confusion, because you have to look in two places to do very similar application controls.

In some places, the CX and the ASA MPF completely overlap; in other areas, the division of labor is more intuitive. Cisco told us that their engineers are working on an 18-month road map to push application-layer features into the CX code, and move common services, such as identity-based access controls, into the ASA base, with progress expected at each release.

The current release of the ASA 5515-X hardware has a choice of running IPS or next-generation firewall (CX), but can't run both. Cisco told us that IPS will be integrated with the CX code by the end of 2013, with a separate license to enable the IPS feature set. As for anti-malware, Cisco couldn't give us a definite answer. Like many security companies, they are shying away from traditional anti-virus scanners as being ineffective against many new threats. With reputation services beautifully integrated into the ASA CX policies, along with botnet detection at the ASA level, Cisco thinks it has the luxury of sitting back and looking at alternative approaches to provide anti-malware protection rather than rushing into yet another anti-virus engine.  


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