First, it's important to understand what last year's Cisco Systems Inc. announcement really means. Cisco announced that it plans to provide third-party developers with access to IOS application programmer interfaces (APIs) in an effort to promote the development of tools that work with the Internetwork Operating System. Cisco did not state that it will make IOS code open source or available to the public. Realistically speaking, Cisco will likely develop partnerships with software firms, allowing them to write code that integrates with IOS.
Why do I think the decision may improve security? If the initiative pans out, we're likely to see a number of new network management tools that integrate with IOS. In my opinion, anything that allows the simplification of network administration through centralization of effort is an improvement.
Some may worry about a potential exposure of Cisco's source code to hackers, but consider two relevant facts. First, hackers have already stolen copies of IOS source code and posted it on a Russian website. Despite the fact that this theft occurred four years ago, we haven't seen a crippling series of IOS exploits. Second, there are plenty of open source products out there (think Linux) that have excellent security reputations. In fact, the public nature of such source code opens it up to additional scrutiny by the infosec community, a move that often improves the security of the products.
So while it may take time for Cisco's new IOS strategy to bear fruit, I'm confident it will benefit enterprise network security in the long run.
This was first published in April 2008