Innovating a Secure Passage

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Gary Fish isn’t interested in creating the next greatest security vendor with his creation, Secure Passage. But the company that he spun off five years ago from his integration business, FishNet Security, may provide a lesson for other solution providers seeking to differentiate themselves from the rest of the marketplace.

About a decade ago, engineers at FishNet Security—even then one of the larger security integrators—noticed a problem in their customer engagements: monitoring changes to firewall rule sets and optimising perimeter security effectiveness. The lack of transparency caused firewall inefficiency and forced end users to buy more equipment than necessary.

The solution that FishNet engineer Jody Brazil came up with was FireMon, a homegrown application that monitored changes made to the firewall’s configuration and rulesets (the instructions for how to deal with traffic hitting the network perimeter). It was just the right solution to solve the problem FishNet was encountering. And, best of all, it had the added benefit of being unique.

“We saw a real legitimate need early on and we capitalised on it,” says Gary Fish, founder and CEO of FishNet Security. “It funded itself for years during the development process. There’s years of development in the product and you just can’t shortcut that process. At first, all I cared about was if we could build the product to be best in its space and it can self-sustain, I was happy with that.”

Over time, though, FireMon evolved from simple command-line app in a sales engineer’s toolkit to an application FishNet offered to its customers. To truly capitalise on its creation, FishNet knew it would need to channelise the product, which meant asking its peers and competitors to carry FireMon. Obviously, that’s not a proposition that competitors would be racing to adopt. So in 2004, FishNet founder and CEO Gary Fish spun off the FireMon unit into a wholly separate company—Secure Passage.

Five years since being spun out, Secure Passage may just be finding its true niche in the marketplace waiting for it. As the recession cuts into IT spending, end users are looking for ways to extend the life of their existing infrastructure. One of FireMon’s value propositions is being able to identify how many rulesets are in use and make recommendations on which rules may be eliminated. The result is a return to firewall efficiency and avoidance of buying newer, more powerful equipment. Secure Passage is looking for its breakout year amid a recession that’s tearing apart other vendors.

The lesson for other solution providers is the diversification of value propositions and not always being reliant upon vendors to solve the technology innovation problem. As Fish recounts the humble beginnings of FireMon, it becomes evidently clear how different Secure Passage’s creation is from that of the typical Silicon Valley start-up.

Tech entrepreneurs typically come up with some idea and develop a proof of concept. They’ll then pitch that idea to venture capitalists for funding, which helps them build out to a legitimate company. A good recounting of that process is told by Dave Hitz, the co-founder of NetApp, in his book “How to Castrate a Bull.” In the case of Secure Passage, Fish says it’s a company that grew out of a product, and it remains true to the core mission: solving the vexing customer problems.

Fish has no lofty expectations of building Secure Passage into the next McAfee, Symantec or Check Point. Rather, his goal remains very clear and steady: build the company up to the point where it has a greater value and sell to a company that can incorporate it into its security product line.

The spinning off of Secure Passage was by necessity to get other security resellers to carry the product without the fear of directly supporting FishNet’s bottom line. But there was another reason: valuation. Software and hardware companies have a different measure of determining the value of their business than a reseller or integrator since the product company has a tangible asset by which to base future revenue performance. Whether it’s a standalone company or as a division of FishNet, FireMon helped improve the potential sale value of the company.

Even if market valuation wasn’t a factor, FishNet’s development and support of FireMon had another, more immediate benefit from its very beginning: differentiation. While plenty of auditing and management tools exist for firewalls and routers, FireMon is unique in its discovery and recommendation engine. As a simple tool, FireMon provided FishNet powerful mechanism for showing customers how to save money while competitors were recommending higher spends to replace perfectly good equipment.

The marketplace is evolving rapidly and customers need a reason to spend money at all, much less spend with one company over another. FishNet’s experience with FireMon serves as a perfect example of how homegrown innovation and ingenuity can lead to better business and, eventually, tangible financial rewards.