Symantec-Altiris: A Sniff of History?

A big merger of security and network/systems management? It's happened before, with ugly results

January 29, 2007

3 Min Read
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5:59 PM -- On paper, Symantec's purchase of Altiris today for $830 million looks like a winner. The two companies share a common interest in desktop security. They have similar markets and a similar view of the desktop. And Altiris's fast-growing revenue will be a nice shot in the arm for the recently-struggling Symantec.

But there has been something bothering me since I heard about this deal. I couldn't put my finger on it at first, but I know now what it is: a feeling of deja vu. A merger of a big security vendor and a big desktop management vendor? I've written this story before.

Ten years ago, security giant McAfee merged with network management legend Network General to form Network Associates, a partnership that was supposed to bring all of the common elements of network, systems, and security administration under one roof. Network General's omnipresent Sniffer meets McAfee's league-leading antivirus technology. A fabulous enterprise play, no?

No. After almost seven years of struggling with incompatible technologies and cultural differences, the two companies finally got a divorce in 2004, when the Sniffer unit was sold off for $275 million and became -- you guess it -- Network General again. McAfee went back to its old name and its old business, and all of those NAI t-shirts suddenly became collector's items.

Now, I should point out that McAfee-Network General was a much different animal than Symantec-Altiris. First of all, it was 10 years ago, when security administration was still in its infancy and network management could be done with a protocol analyzer. Second, McAfee and Network General had very different cultures and goals, and they didn't mesh well. Symantec and Altiris are a significantly better match. Third, the joint management of NAI didn't work well, because nobody was sure who was in charge. That won't happen with Symantec, which is clearly the acquiring entity.

Having said all that, though, I can't help remembering the lukewarm reaction to NAI in the market. There simply was no strong interest in merging network management with security management. The people were different, the technologies were different, the problems were different. Trying to integrate them seemed to only make everything harder.

I'm not sure that that situation has changed much today. Yes, security people, desktop management people, and networking people are talking more than they used to. But is there a driver, a "killer app" that will force them to consolidate their efforts under a common set of tools? I wonder.

It could be that endpoint security and management will be that killer app. Clearly, there is great interest in finding and fixing vulnerabilities at the end stations, where the infrastructure is weakest. That's what network access control (NAC) is all about -- finding endpoint vulnerabilities and fixing them before allowing a device onto the network.

But are enterprises willing to put serious dollars into making it happen? Is there enough synergy between security administrators and desktop PC administrators to bring the technologies together? If Symantec and Altiris are able to merge their offerings, will there be enough interest in them to make enterprises turn away from Microsoft, which builds some of the administrative features directly into the operating system?

I'm skeptical. Symantec-Altiris definitely looks good on paper, and the merger of the product lines is definitely do-able. I just wonder if the combination of desktop management and desktop security is really the big market that the partners make it out to be.

On the other hand, maybe I'm just jaded and cynical. After all, I still have my NAI t-shirt.

— Tim Wilson, Site Editor, Dark Reading

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