This morning, Cisco announced their intent to acquire OpenDNS, a security-as-a-service (SaaS) provider based around the idea of using Domain Naming Service (DNS) as a method for preventing the spread of malware and other exploits. I’ve used the OpenDNS free offering in the past as a way to offer basic web filtering to schools without funds as well as using OpenDNS at home for speedy name resolution when my local name servers have failed me miserably.
This acquistion is curious to me. It seems to be a line of business that is totally alien to Cisco at this time. There are a couple of interesting opportunities that have arisen from the discussions around it though.
Internet of Things With Names
The first and most obivious synergy with Cisco and OpenDNS is around Internet of Things (IoT) or Internent of Everything (IoE) as Cisco has branded their offering. IoT/IoE has gotten a huge amount of attention from Cisco in the past 18 months as more and more devices come online from thermostats to appliances to light sockets. The number of formerly dumb devices that now have wireless radios and computers to send information is staggering.
All of those devices depend on certain services to work properly. One of those services is DNS. IoT/IoE devices aren’t going to use pure IP to communicate with cloud servers. That’s because IoT uses public cloud offerings to communicate with devices and dashboards. As I said last year, capacity and mobility can be ensure by using AWS, Google Cloud, or Azure to host the servers to which IoT/IoE devices communicate.
The easiest way to communicate with AWS instances is via DNS. This ensures that a service can be mobile and fault tolerant. That’s critical to ensure the service never goes down. Losing your laptop or your phone for a few minutes is annoying but survivable. Losing a thermostat or a smoke detector is a safety hazard. Services that need to be resilient need to use DNS.
More than that, with control of OpenDNS Cisco now has a walled DNS garden that they can populate with Cisco service entries. Rather than allowing IoT/IoE devices to inherit local DNS resolution from a home ISP, they can hard code the DNS name servers in the device and ensure that the only resolution used will be controled by Cisco. This means they can activate new offerings and services and ensure that they are reachable by the devices. It also allows them to police the entries in DNS and prevent people from creating “workarounds” to enable to disable features and functions. Walled-garden DNS is as important to IoT/IoE as the walled-garden app store is to mobile devices.
The other offering hinted at in the acquistion post from Cisco talks about the professional offerings from OpenDNS. The OpenDNS Umbrella security service helps enterprises protect themselves from malware and security breaches through control and visibility. There is also a significant amount of security intelligence available due to the amount of traffic OpenDNS processes every day. This gives them insight into the state of the Internet as well as sourcing infection vectors and identifying threats at their origin.
Cisco hopes to utilize this predictive intelligence in their security products to help aid in fast identification and mitigation of threats. By combining OpenDNS with SourceFire and Ironport the hope is that this giant software machine will be able to protect customers even faster before they get exposed and embarrased and even sued for negligence.
The part that worries me about that superior predictive intelligence is how it’s gathered. If the only source of that information comes from paying OpenDNS customers then everything should be fine. But I can almost guarantee that users of the free OpenDNS service (like me) are also information sources. It makes the most sense for them. Free users provide information for the paid service. Paid users are happy at the level of intelligence they get, and those users pay for the free users to be able to keep using those features at no cost. Win/win for everyone, right?
But what happens if Cisco decides to end the free offering from OpenDNS? Let’s think about that a little. If free users are locked out from OpenDNS or required to pay even a small nominal fee, that means their source of information is lost in the database. Losing that information reduces the visibility OpenDNS has into the Internet and slows their ability to identify and vector threats quickly. Paying users then lose effectiveness of the product and start leaving in droves. That loss accelerates the failure of that intelligence. Any products relying on this intelligence also reduce in effectiveness. A downward spiral of disaster.
The solution for Cisco is very easy. In order to keep the effectiveness of OpenDNS and their paid intelligence offerings, Cisco needs to keep the free offering and not lock users out of using their DNS name servers for no cost. Adding IoT/IoE into the equation helps somewhat, but Cisco has to have the information from small enterprises and schools that use OpenDNS. It benefits everyone for Cisco to let OpenDNS operate just as they have been for the past few years. Cisco gains signficant intelligence for their security offerings. They also gain the OpenDNS customer base to sell new security devices to. And free users gain the staying power of a brand like Cisco.