Microsoft gives AV vendors cause to sweat

Redmond's Forefront security strategy could position the company to take on third-party anti-virus companies

I could do the Microsoft 12-step column about Redmond’s recently released "Twelve Tenets to Promote Competition," but that would be like being a comedian the week that Cheney shot his hunting buddy: just too easy. Instead, I’m going to review the strategy behind Microsoft’s new Forefront security family. Might not be as easy as blasting the 12 canons of Redmondian goodness to shreds, but it’s probably more informative.

Forefront is a decent fit of a name because Microsoft intends this platform to sit in front of anything with a direct hook to the wild and woolly Internet. You’ll find Forefront clients for Windows XP (formerly called MCP [Microsoft Client Protection]), Exchange Server (previously known as Antigen), Office Live Communications Server (this one was Antigen for Instant Messaging), and SharePoint (once again an Antigen predecessor). Finally, ISA (Internet Security and Acceleration) Server also got rolled in whole hog.

So aside from ISA and MCP, Forefront is really just a re-branding of the Antigen product line -- which isn’t too bad; it had to happen sometime and at least it means some better integration once Vista and Longhorn finally see the light of day. Just don’t expect anything for free. All of these are added-cost packages: Either you pay for them separately, or you’ll get access to them when you’ve paid for an enterprise CAL.

Unfortunately, for those who seek uncomplicated lives, Forefront by no means encompasses all of Microsoft’s security products. On the client side, the Windows Live offerings will continue to exist, as will Windows Defender. On the server side, Microsoft’s FrontBridge line of hosted filtering services will also continue to be a separate product group.

FrontBridge, now called Exchange Hosted Services, is a four-pronged hosting bonanza covering filtering (death to spam, death to viruses), archiving (the coolest service with not only smart hosting of your e-mail store but smart searching, too), hosted encryption (end-to-end encryption management) and continuity (the “we’re a global, multisite hosted datacenter so we can never lose your data” speech).

You might wonder why Microsoft left these other security products out of Forefront. It could be because they’re delivered differently, but there’s one more overriding concern: By giving customers additional security options within its own portfolio, Microsoft by extension leaves the market open for third-party competitors. So it’s not really competing with third-party anti-virus vendors … Right?

But that’ll change. Give Forefront some time, and I don’t see any other option save for open war. If Forefront lives, Microsoft must compete with its former allies directly. And it’ll be a force to reckon with, too, because Microsoft will do what it always does. Forefront’s scanning will be comparable to the competition, and it’ll be easier to manage and far easier to deploy because effectively, it’ll come preloaded.

For me, the question isn’t what Microsoft is going to do. The company will continue to do what it has always done. The question is how third-party virus vendors are going to react. After all, Windows accounts for something like 80 percent of the world’s malware attacks. If Microsoft takes that in-house with an effective solution, well, let’s just say 80 percent is an awfully big chunk of anyone’s market share.