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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

Areas of the base firewall that we take for granted, such as NAT, VLAN support, dynamic routing, joint Layer 2/Layer 3 support, and IPv6 capabilities are all done very well in the ASA.   

We were disappointed that Cisco still hasn't pushed BGP routing into the ASA, especially since they've done a really incredible job with the routing protocols (OSPF, OSPFv3, EIGRP, RIP and several multicast routing protocols) which come already inside the ASA. It took a while for the outstanding routing feature set we all know and love from IOS to migrate into the ASA, but it was worth the wait, and network managers looking for the ASA to be a strong participant in their dynamic routing will be happy with its capabilities.  

Since we couldn't test BGP according to our standard NGFW test methodology, we used OSPFv3 instead to integrate the ASA into our existing IPv4 and IPv6 network, a very painless experience. The ASA is also missing full integration between the VPN and dynamic routing. Network managers hoping to use dynamic routing to build large VPN-based WANs will need to stick with IOS for their site-to-site tunnels. We did not test high availability, but Cisco told us that the ASA CX currently supports active/passive failover and will support active/active clustering next year.

Aside from the firewall ACLs, we found two other areas lacking: QoS enforcement, and central management. We'll cover central management separately, but our testing of QoS enforcement found that the ASA has a very weak feature set. Most firewalls have some ability to help prioritize and control traffic during periods of congestion, but not the ASA. We found that the ASA has only simple policing (limiting bandwidth of a particular application, even when there is plenty available) and queuing without any attempt to manage traffic. QoS is one big area where the ASA could pick up a lot of great features from Cisco IOS.

We think that security managers who have grown up with other firewalls and are not used to the ASA's quirks will find it a more difficult product to integrate into complicated networks. However, in simpler topologies and especially in environments with a lot of remote-access VPN, the ASA fits in with the rest of the basic firewall marketplace and remains a competitive solution.

Next generation application identification and control
If anything defines next-generation firewalls, it's application identification and control, and the ASA CX next-generation features aim squarely at that target. To evaluate how well the ASA CX could identify and control applications, we used the same set of 41 test scenarios in nine categories that we tried in our next-gen firewall test last year.  


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