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New tools aim to boost IM security

The seemingly inexorable spread of instant messaging (IM) in the enterprise continues to pick up speed despite fears that the technology can be a threat to corporate security. At the same time, software developers are working to overcome the threat with tools that are reaching some corporate IT units.

Despite the fears, Stamford, Conn.-based research firm Meta Group has published a report predicting that the number of employees using IM services for business will grow from 20-25 million in 2003 to 95 million by 2007. Some analysts expect to see business users sending nearly 2 trillion instant messages annually by the end of next year.

"If you look at what drives IM adoption, it's time sensitivity," Rahul Abhyankar, product manager at IM management services company FaceTime Communications, told e-ADT in a recent interview. "IM is real-time communications, so it's ideally suited for the time-sensitive nature of communications. In today's business environment, where it's all about speed, it is important to get the right information to the right person at the right time, irrespective of where they may be. IM is a great way to achieve that and so it is, in the end, a technology that increases the competitiveness of companies."

The security fears that IM can poke a hole in corporate firewalls is creating opportunities for IM solutions vendors like FaceTime, which last week brought out a pair of tools designed to make life with IM a little easier and more secure.

The Foster City, Calif.-based company's IM Director product is an instant-messaging server that acts as the "cornerstone" of the company's enterprise IM management suite of security, management and control products. It is designed for deployment behind a company's corporate firewall for the management and control of heterogeneous IM clients and services in the enterprise. The idea is to give IT managers a tool for employing what FaceTime calls a "phased" approach to the controlled adoption and management of IM, allowing them to get a grip on issues like virus attacks and the inadvertent dissemination of proprietary company information.

Genelle Hung, a market analyst with The Radicati Group, said IM is invading corporations to improve internal communications, but at the same time workers can use the technology to better communicate with partners and customers, and thus potentially improve business. The potential of IM in business makes it critical for IT developers to find tools that can fill the security holes, Hung said.

FaceTime is offering IM Director as a standalone management and control server or in a bundle with the company's enterprise IM management suite.

In addition, FaceTime has released a new version of its popular IM and peer-to-peer (P2P) communications gateway, IM Guardian. The product is designed to manage complex, real-time communication technologies such as IM and P2P, Web teleconferencing and voice over IP (VoIP), according to company officials.

"IM and P2P client applications today are capable of exhibiting harmful behavior whereby random ports on the firewall are opened, allowing unauthorized network traffic to pass through," said Matt Cain, vice president at Meta Group. In addition to draining bandwidth, this tendency of IM and P2P file-sharing technologies exposes corporate networks to potential attacks, such as the recent "fizzer" worm that affected users of KaZaA, one of the mostly widely used P2P apps (about 200 million), Cain added.

IM Guardian is designed to extend the core, real-time management and control capabilities of FaceTime's IM Director. When deployed in the corporate "DMZ," IM Guardian acts as a security gateway for RT communications, providing blocking or management and control protection from application vulnerabilities, policies for application behavior, dynamic port negotiation, network usage statistics and anti-virus scanning for file transfers. The product detects and enforces application behavior based on patterns in the OSI model's application layer to protect against unauthorized use, and it is designed to deploy within the existing network security infrastructure.

"As more companies realize the benefits of IM and P2P, it is important for network administrators to know and have control over how the applications themselves behave over the network," FaceTime's Abhyankar said. "If left unmanaged altogether, these applications can be used as Trojan horses to attack the network at a later time."

The new version of IM Guardian will be generally available in Q3 2003, according to company officials.

About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached at john@watersworks.com.

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