Cisco ASA Firewall Review

Robust solution that integrates well with both Cisco products and products from other vendors

What is our primary use case?

The ASAs are a defense solution for companies. Many of them use the AnyConnect or the VPN licenses. They also use it to have a next-generation firewall and to be compliant with GDPR.

The majority of our usage of the solution is on-prem or hybrid. The culture, here in Portugal — even knowing that the future is full cloud, in my opinion — is to only be on the way to full cloud.

What is most valuable?

All the features are very valuable. 

Among them is the integration for remote users, with AnyConnect, to the infrastructure. All the security through that is wonderful and it's very easy. You connect and you are inside your company network via VPN. Everything is encrypted and it's a very good solution. This is a wonderful feature. You need to make sure your machine has the profile requested by the company. That means having the patches updated. Optionally, you should have the antivirus updated, but you can decide whatever you would like in order to enable acceptance of the end-device in the enterprise network. That can be done with AnyConnect for remote/satellite users, or with ISE for local users.

The intrusion prevention system, the intrusion detection, is perfect. But you can also integrate Cisco with an IPS solution from another vendor, and just use the ASA with AnyConnect and as a firewall. You can choose from among many other vendors' products that the ASA will integrate with. Now, with Cisco SecureX, it's much easier than before. Cisco used to be completely blocked from other vendors but with SecureX they are open to other vendors. That was a massive improvement that Cisco probably should have made 10 years ago or seven years ago. They only released SecureX three or four months ago. 

Cisco ASA also provides application control. You can block or prevent people from going to certain applications or certain content. But the ASA only acts as a "bodyguard." It doesn't provide full visibility of the network. For that, there are other solutions from Cisco, such as ISE, although that is more for identity. Stealthwatch or TrustSec is what you need for visibility. They are both for monitoring and providing full visibility of the network, and they integrate with ASA.

Also, all of Cisco's security products are supported with Talos. Talos is in the background, handling all the improvements, all the updates. If something happens in Australia, for example, Talos will be aware of it and it will update the worldwide Talos network for all Cisco products. Within two minutes or three minutes, worldwide, Cisco products will be aware of that threat. Talos belongs to Cisco. It's like a Cisco research center.

What needs improvement?

My concern in the 21st century, with ASA, is the front-end. I think Cisco missed the mark with all the configuration steps. They are a pain and, when doing them, it looks as if we're using a very old technology — yet the technology itself is not old, it's very good. But the front-end configuration is very tough. They probably still make a good profit even with the front-end being difficult, but it's not easy. It's not user-friendly. All the configuration procedures are not user-friendly.

Also, they launched the 1000 series for SMBs. They have all the same features as the enterprise solutions, but the throughput is less and, obviously, the price is less as well. It's a very nice appliance. However, imagine you buy one, take it out of the box to connect it and the device needs one hour or two hours to start up. That is a pain and that is not appropriate for the 21st century. They should solve that issue.

Another issue is that when you integrate different Cisco solutions with each other, there is an overlap of features and you need to turn some of them off, and that is not very good.  If you don't, and you have overlap, you will have problems. Disabling the overlap can be done manually or the solution can identify that there is already a process running, and will tell you to please disable that function.

For today's threats, for today's reality, you need to add solutions to the ASA, either from Cisco or from other vendors, to have a full security solution in an enterprise company.

For how long have I used the solution?

I've been using Cisco ASA NGFW for almost two years.

What do I think about the stability of the solution?

The stability of the ASA is perfect. There is no downtime. And you can have redundancy as well. You can have two ASAs working in Active-Passive or load balancing. If the product needs a restart, you don't have downtime because you use the other one. From that point of view it's very robust.

What do I think about the scalability of the solution?

You can go for other models for scalability and sort it out that way.

My suggestion is to think about scalability and about your tomorrow — whether you'll increase or not — and already think about the next step from the beginning.

How are customer service and technical support?

Cisco's technical support for ASA is very good. I have dealt with them many times. They are very well prepared. If you have a Smart Account, they will change your device by the next business day. That is a very good point about Cisco. You have to pay for a Smart Account, but it's very useful.

How was the initial setup?

The initial setup is very complex. You need to set a load of settings, whether from the CLI or the GUI. It's not an easy process and it should be. That is one of the reasons why many retailers don't go for Cisco. They know Cisco is very good. They know Cisco does ensure security, that it is one of the top-three security vendors, but because of the work involved in the implementation, they decide to go with other solutions.

There are two possibilities in terms of deployment. If we go to a client who is the ASA purchaser and they give us all their policies, all their permissions, and everything is organized, we can deploy, with testing, in one full day. But many times they don't know the policies or what they would like to allow and block. In that scenario, it will take ages. That's not from the Cisco side but because of the customer.

One person, who knows the solutions well, is enough for an ASA deployment. I have done it alone many times. After it's deployed, the number of people needed to maintain the solution depends on their expertise. One expert could do everything involved with the maintenance.

What's my experience with pricing, setup cost, and licensing?

When it comes to security, pricing should not be an issue, but we know, of course, that it is. Why is an Aston Martin or a Rolls Royce very expensive? It's expensive because the support is there at all times. Replacement parts are available at all times. They offer a lot of opportunities and customer services that others don't come close to offering. 

Cisco is expensive but it's a highly rated company. It's one of the top-three security companies worldwide.

Which other solutions did I evaluate?

I can see the differences between Cisco and Check Point. 

Cisco has a solution called Umbrella which was called OpenDNS before, and from my point of view, Umbrella can reduce 60 percent of the attack surface because it checks the validity of the DNS. It will check all the links you click on to see if they are real or fake, using the signature link. If any of them are unknown, they will go straight to the sandbox. Those features do not exist with Check Point.

What other advice do I have?

Cisco ASA is a very robust solution. It does its job and it has all the top features. If you have a solution that is creating a script and you need to deploy many implementations, you can create a script in the device and it will be the same for all. After that, you just have to do the fine tuning. It lacks when it comes to the configuration steps and the pain that that process is. You need to spend loads of time with it at setup. Overall, it does everything they say it does.

It's a very good solution but don't only go with the ASA. Go for Cisco Umbrella and join them together. If you have remote employees, go for AnyConnect to be more than secure in your infrastructure.

You cannot do everything with Cisco Defense Orchestrator. You have a few options with it but cannot do everything from the cloud if you are connected with the console of a device. You don't have all the same options, you only have some options with it. For example, you can manage the security policies, all of them, from the cloud. However, not all the settings and all the things you can do when in front of the device are available with CDO. What you see is what you get.

Most companies using ASA are big companies. They are not SMB companies. There are very few SMB companies using it. There are the banks and consulting companies, the huge ones. Usually the ASAs are for massive companies.

Our reality in Portugal is a little different. I was at a Cisco conference here in Lisbon and the guy said, "Oh, we have this solution," — it was for multi-factor authentication — "and we have different licenses. We have a license for 40,000 and for 20,000 users. And I was thinking, "This guy doesn't know Portuguese reality. There are no companies in Portugal with 40,000 employees."

Large companies who do use ASA use various security tools like IPS and Layer 7 control. From my experience, and from common sense, it's best to have solutions from different vendors joining together. The majority have defense products for the deterrent capacities they need to achieve security. Our clients also often have Cisco ISE, Identity Service Engine. It's a NAC solution that integrates perfectly with ASA and with AnyConnect as well.

As for future-proofing your security strategy, ASA is the perfect solution if you integrate other Cisco solutions. But the ASA alone will not do it because it does not handle some of the core issues, like full visibility of the network, the users, the machines, the procedures, and the applications, in my opinion.

**Disclosure: My company has a business relationship with this vendor other than being a customer: Partner.
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