Not a week goes past nowadays without some company or other launching yet another “UTM” appliance.

The latest is Zyxel, which this week announced the ZyWall Unified Threat Management series.

UTM stands for “Unified Threat management”, a term dreamt up by analysts to help vendors understand their own ideas in a single marketing-friendly concept. They are, speaking bluntly, glorified firewalls.

To be fair, UTM has something going for it. The reasoning goes that smaller enterprises will take to them because they can manage a number of usually diverse security features (firewalling, anti-virus, anti-spam, intrusion detection, etc) in one “appliance” or box of chips. Easy to install, site, manage, they sound great.

But hold on. Can one box really run all those processor-intensive security features without taking a performance hit?

Buyers of the Zyxel get one box with a built-in “firewall, IPSec VPN, Dual WAN Load Balancing, Bandwidth Management, Content Filtering, Kaspersky antivirus, Intrusion Detection and Prevention and Mailshell Gateway Anti-Spam.”

That’s an awful lot of things going on in one box, at one time. Holding back the doubts for a minute, UTMs are really about three things.

First, security vendors want to sell to the great unwashed – all those companies and organisations that have never bothered with security beyond the basics. Why? Because there are a huge number of these companies and this is where the analysts say the growth is going to be. Better have an UTM then.

Two, firewalls are as old as flaky varnish. Who wants to buy another one if you already have one that has the required throughput? The basic firewalling features have been rapidly commoditised in the last two years and there is no longer enough margin in selling them. The only differentiator left is performance and people had a bellyful of that sales pitch a decade ago with switching.

Three, and perhaps most importantly, the industry is moving – as it has in other areas of IT – towards a service model. UTMs fit quite nicely into this model because all those functions can be sold on various levels of ongoing subscription.

Lots of companies have UTMs, or soon will. What are known as “second-tier” players (i.e anyone not called Cisco) love them, and they certainly offer a compelling set of features at ever more cutthroat prices. It’s possible to imagine a day not far off when consumers will have such powerful devices in the home.

Real security is not a box away and never will be. But in the meantime, your network can have it all, as long as you’re not overly fussy. Will you sleep easier?