Cisco's 6-year-old Self-Defending Network strategy for securing converged networks remains a work in progress: acquisitions and internal developments are moving it forward even as customers push Cisco to go above and beyond its initial plans.

Cisco spends $400 million annually - roughly 10 percent of its total R&D budget - on security. The company's aim with SDN is to integrate security into all aspects of a converged data, voice and video network with a focus on secure connectivity, threat defence, and trust and identity management.

In June, Cisco provided its most recent update on SDN after its acquisition of IronPort Systems, a privately held developer of e-mail and Web security products. Cisco said IronPort ushered in Version 3.0 of SDN (Version 1.0 involved Cisco's recognition that security is more than point products, like firewalls, VPN concentrators and intrusion-detection systems; Version 2.0 comprised building those capabilities into Cisco products.)

Cisco plans to port IronPort's SenderBase reputation services onto Cisco Adaptive Security Appliance firewalls by the first half of 2008. Cisco also plans to port SenderBase to other key security or routing platforms, such as the Integrated Services Routers and Mitigation Analysis and Response System. Integration with Cisco and third-party network admission control (NAC) products also is expected.

"If they can now get e-mail security, web security - basically all the secure messaging technologies - into that mix they've got a bigger story," says Charlotte Dunlap, senior analyst of enterprise security at Current Analysis.

Dunlap is keeping an eye on how Cisco might take advantage of an existing relationship between IronPort and Vontu, a developer of software that analyses content and authorises user access at endpoints to protect against data leakage.

"I'd really like to hear their data-leakage story," says Dunlap, who compares Cisco's purchase of IronPort to Secure Computing's acquisition of CipherTrust last year. "[IronPort does not offer] the level of depth that the data-leakage prevention providers do."

Cisco intends to maintain IronPort's ties to Vontu and exploit the relationship for inclusion in the SDN architecture, according to Jeff Platon, vice president of security marketing at Cisco.

"I think of that as a part of the solution but I do see a variety of other parts of the portfolio that are also being enhanced to be able to participate in a more comprehensive data-leakage solution," Platon says. "It's a tough problem -- you can't just rely on one methodology."

An earlier Cisco buyout, that of FineGround in May 2005, also fits into the plan.

Pieces of the FineGround technology have found their way into the Application Control Engine blade for Cisco Catalyst 6500 switches, Platon says. ACE is a key component of SDN's data-centre security component, in which application connection requests to server farms are inspected for legitimacy and outbound content authorization, and filtered for malware.

Beyond SDN 3.0, Cisco plans to build greater collaboration among network-, content- and application-layer services, Platon says. Reputation services also will broaden to include end users, perhaps through what Platon calls a global passport service yet to be created by a public- or private-sector enterprise.

"You're going to have to have some way to determine [who someone is] with some semblance of accuracy," Platon says. "Reputation on a user basis is one of the possibilities that I think has a great amount of likelihood to come to pass."

That hits home with Pacific Gas & Electric, which is undergoing a business transformation whereby it is constructing centralized resource management centres. PG&E is relying on Cisco for desktop-to-core connectivity, process and security requirements, says Paul Nielsen, lead supervisor of LAN/WAN services at the utility.

"At those centres, where we've deployed the majority of their products, is where to build a self-defending network," Nielsen says.

PG&E uses Cisco PIX firewalls, Clean Access NAC appliances, VPN concentrators and Firewall Service Modules on the Catalyst 6500 LAN switches, as well as the "latest and greatest" security features on Cisco switches and routers, Nielsen says.

"It's more than just deciding if you have the right certificate or the right credentials; it's more important that we find out if there's a watermark on the PC, if this is a PG&E person," Nielsen says.

An announcement last week by Cisco and Intel might help. Intel enhanced its vPro processor technology with a Cisco-certified "embedded trust agent" that offers Cisco customers the ability to manage systems without lowering the security on IEEE 802.1x networks and Cisco SDN products.

Nielsen says PG&E hasn't been briefed yet on Cisco's road map for that. But where SDN currently fits is in spots where PG&E is installing new Cisco infrastructure.

"Where we've had problems is where we have legacy systems," Nielsen says. "If a company buys into the Cisco solution and they buy all of the pieces, it works great; but you've got to have all of the pieces there. You can't do clean access NAC on a Catalyst 1900 switch that was built six or 10 years ago; it just doesn't work."

Nielsen notes that this issue is industry-wide, not Cisco-specific.

Customer, analyst wish lists PG&E would like to see Cisco take SDN into the realm of virtualisation, especially with intrusion detection.

"That's huge for us because it allows us to focus our alarms on traffic that's specific to that segment," Nielsen says. "Currently, you have a lot of false alarms reporting" due to breaches on other segments.

But for now, IronPort and its messaging security technology are the basis of SDN 3.0. There's still much more to fill out, Current Analysis analyst Dunlap says.

"I'd like to also know how Cisco's going to combat threats through security technology aside from e-mail security - things like IPS, behavioural technology, risk assessment," she says. "How they're going to be competing with McAfee, Symantec and others."

Phil Hochmuth, a network security analyst with The Yankee Group, says Cisco's emphasis on Web 2.0, collaboration and the "human network" will bring added risk as well as reward.

"The next step for SDN is to deal with Web 2.0 in the enterprise, beyond the [network-centric] stuff Cisco's done well for a long time," he says.

Platon urges SDN watchers to stay tuned.

"I don't think we're by any means done yet," he says. "The security issues are accelerating and the criminalisation of the global network unfortunately is going to also accelerate. We're going to need to have better tools to enforce policy, better tools to understand that this is a safe connection request to accept."