Will Cisco's plan to open access to the IOS improve network security?

If Cisco's initiative pans out, we're likely to see a number of new network management tools that integrate with IOS. Mike Chapple explains why that centralization will be a security improvement.

Do you think Cisco's plan to open up access to the Internetwork Operating System (IOS) and its code present a security risk for enterprises?
No. On the contrary, I think we may see improved security services as a result.

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.

More information:

  • In 2007, researchers warned of innovative attack methods against Cisco IOS.
  • Get the latest news and expert advice on open source security.
  • This was last published in April 2008

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