Microsoft is to acquire SSL VPN vendor Whale Communications in a bid to establish more of a presence in the growing market for secure access products.

The acquisition will give Microsoft access to Whale's Windows-based Secure Socket Layer Virtual Private Network (SSL VPN) appliances and firewall products designed to protect enterprise applications when they're accessed by remote workers, partners and customers.

The Whale products build on the site-to-site and remote access VPN and application publishing capabilities built into Microsoft's Windows Server and Internet Security and Acceleration (ISA) server, said Steve Brown, a director of product management at Microsoft.

The products will allow companies to enable secure remote access to a broad range of applications from a variety of mobile devices, including laptops, smart phones and PDAs, said Joel Sloss, senior product manager with Microsoft's secure access group. One of the factors that separates Whale from other vendors in the SSL VPN market is the work Whale has done in providing application-specific protection for several applications, Sloss said.

Peter Greco, CIO at Regis University in Denver, welcomed the planned purchase because it will create a "better development path" for Whale's products.

For the past six months, the university has been using Whale's SSL VPN technologies to allow users to access SharePoint applications over the web. For users, "the Whale SSL VPN appliance has created an experience exactly like being on campus," because it allows them to securely access applications without VPN client technology on their systems, he said. "I feel pretty good about Microsoft's acquisition. This should make more resources available" for future product development, he said.

The purchase will allow Microsoft to tap into a growing demand for SSL VPN products, particularly among small and medium-sized firms, said Rob Whiteley, an analyst with Forrester Research.

SSL's VPNs do not require client side software like IPSec-based VPN technologies, helping them gain popularity in recent years. According to Whiteley, the current market for such products is about US$300 million a year and growing rapidly. The major players in the space include F5 Networks, Aventail and Juniper, via its acquisition of Neoteris.

Microsoft's acquisition of Whale gives it a company that is considerably smaller in size to those vendors. But the fact that Whale has based its platform on Windows technology - unlike the others whose platforms are based on Linux - makes it a good fit for Microsoft, he said.

"I think this puts some pretty good wood behind Microsoft's arrow in terms of getting into the security space," he said.

"It was a right choice for Microsoft," said Zeus Kerravala, an analyst with the Yankee Group in Boston. "Whale has been a pretty small niche player and never really had the impact that Aventail and Neoteris have had.'

But the fact that Whale's products are Windows-based will make them easier to integrate with Microsoft's technologies, he said.