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What Is Unified Threat Management?

Unified threat management (UTM) is a category of network security appliances that provide multiple security functions in one, usually including network firewall, intrusion detection and prevention, content filtering, antivirus, anti-spyware, and anti-spam. Considered the solution to many point security product challenges in the early 2010s, UTM has since been superseded by newer technologies like cloud firewall, SWG, and SSE.

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How UTM Works

A UTM provides a centralized platform for security management, consolidating, controlling, and monitoring multiple security measures. Such consolidation is designed to not only streamline security protocols but also reduce complexity for network security administrators. UTMs inspect incoming and outgoing network traffic through their various integrated components.

During their periods of widespread use, UTMs were frequently updated to respond to new cyberthreats. This made UTMs a popular choice for small to medium-sized businesses looking for effective, manageable cybersecurity solutions that required less immediate oversight by security staff.

Features of a Unified Threat Management Platform

To protect users from a variety of security threats, a UTM incorporates a range of features:

  • Firewall acts as a barrier between a trusted network and an untrusted network, enforcing security policy for incoming and outgoing traffic.
  • Intrusion prevention system (IPS) monitors network and/or system activities for malicious activities or policy violations and can react in real time to block or prevent them.
  • Antivirus/Anti-malware scans network traffic and connected devices for malicious software and takes actions to isolate or remove detected threats.
  • Virtual private network (VPN) theoretically enables secure remote access to the network by encrypting data sent over the internet through a tunnel.
  • Web filtering offers access controls to websites and content on the internet, based on policies, to prevent access to inappropriate content or to mitigate security risks.
  • Spam filtering identifies and blocks email spam, preventing it from reaching user inboxes, which also reduces the risk of phishing attacks.
  • Data loss prevention (DLP) ensures sensitive or critical information does not leave the corporate network, whether intentionally or unintentionally.
  • Bandwidth management regulates network traffic to ensure critical business applications have priority and sufficient bandwidth to perform effectively.

When employees were in the office (and only in the office), UTMs served as an integrated security solution, simplifying the security infrastructure by replacing individual security appliances with a single device. Ideally, this helped streamline security management, reduce complexity, and potentially increase overall security efficacy.

 

Additional Unified Threat Management Features

Unified threat management (UTM) offers a wide array of security features to protect networks from various threats. Some of the more advanced capabilities that a UTM platform carries are as follows:

  • Network sandboxing isolates and tests suspicious code or content in a secure environment to prevent malware and ransomware outbreaks.
  • Wireless security controls manage and secure wireless communications such as those through Wi-Fi networking within an organization to prevent unauthorized access and ensure compliance with security policies.
  • WAN optimization improves network performance and speeds up the transmission of data across wide area networks (WANs).
  • Email encryption automatically encrypts outgoing emails to protect sensitive information in transit.
  • Application control restricts or allows usage of applications based on policies to mitigate the risk of security breaches from within the organization.

These features can be less commonly discussed but are critical components of a robust UTM solution, providing an additional layer of security to organizations.

UTM vs. Next-Generation Firewalls

Unified threat management (UTM) and next-generation firewalls (NGFW) are both network security solutions designed to protect organizations from a variety of cyberthreats:

Unified Threat Management (UTM):

  • Combines multiple security features and services into a single device or service
  • May also offer VPN functionality for secure remote access
  • Aims to simplify the complex management of multiple security components
  • Can be less flexible than à la carte solutions because features are bundled
  • Often managed through a single unified console, which simplifies administration

Next-Generation Firewall (NGFW):

  • Includes traditional firewall capabilities and additional features, such as application awareness
  • Includes advanced intrusion prevention systems (IPS) to detect and block sophisticated attacks
  • Often has the ability to integrate with other security systems and share threat intelligence
  • Provides capabilities like SSL inspection, identity management integration, and deep packet inspection
  • Can be part of a larger security ecosystem, requiring more complex management across different components

Benefits of Using a Unified Threat Management Solution

UTM systems are designed to integrate multiple security features within a single platform. Here are the key benefits of employing a UTM:

  • Simplified security management: Centralize various security functions into a single management console, making it easier to administer and monitor the network's security posture.
  • Streamlined installation and upgrades: Simplify the deployment process and ease the upgrade path for new security features and updates.
  • Regulatory compliance: More easily meet compliance requirements by leveraging a range of security features required by various regulatory frameworks.

Challenges of Using UTM

UTMs worked well when employees were in the office, but with work-from-anywhere now being the standard, UTMs come with their fair share of headaches, such as:

  • Lack of scalability:  UTM appliances aren’t built to scale with the growth of a business like cloud technologies are. Security teams will eventually run into roadblocks as the amount of users increases.
  • Performance bottlenecks: High traffic volume and compute-intensive functions can strain UTM devices, leading to network latency that impacts performance and the user experience.
  • Latency: Like other appliance-based security tools, UTMs require remote traffic to be backhauled to the data center and then back out to the user.
  • Cost: Initial investment for comprehensive UTM solutions can be high, with additional fees for ongoing costs for updates, licensing, and potential hardware upgrades.
  • Feature redundancy: Overlap with existing security solutions can lead to unnecessary redundancy and the potential for underutilization of some UTM features.
  • Update management: Frequent updates are necessary to ensure protection against the latest threats. Plus, information security teams must manage these updates to avoid security gaps.
  • Integration challenges: Integrating with existing systems and software can be complex, potentially leading to compatibility issues with other network components.
  • Scalability concerns: As businesses grow, UTM systems may need to be replaced if they cannot scale accordingly. Additional modules or hardware might be required to handle increased load.

With all of this said, it’s clear why UTM platforms have fallen out of favor. Companies are now opting for cloud native threat management systems that can inspect traffic at scale to detect the most advanced threats and deliver unified protection to users, wherever they work.

How Zscaler Can Help

The Zscaler Zero Trust Exchange™ is a cloud-based platform purpose-built to address the evolving cyber needs of today’s enterprises. Using data from the world’s largest security cloud, our zero trust platform, built on an AI SASE framework, helps your security teams stop advanced threats before they can infiltrate your systems.

Zscaler Cyberthreat Protection, part of our best-of-breed security and connectivity platform, stops these threats by:

  • Securing all four stages of a cyberattack: Our zero trust framework minimizes attack surface, prevents compromise, eliminates lateral movement, and stops data loss
  • Eliminating point products and complexity: Our comprehensive cloud platform delivers layered, integrated security services with centralized management and visibility, which reduces business risk
  • Delivering unmatched inline threat protection: AI-powered threat protection powered by 500 trillion daily signals, 360 billion daily transactions
  • Quantifying enterprise-wide risk: Full-stack risk visibility gives your team actionable insights and guided workflows for remediation

Learn how Zscaler Cyberthreat Protection keeps your users, devices, and IoT/OT safe from even the most advanced threats.

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FAQs

What Is the Difference Between UTM and a Traditional Firewall?

A UTM combines multiple security features into a single appliance. In contrast, a traditional firewall primarily focuses on controlling inbound and outbound network traffic based on an established set of security rules, acting as a barrier between secure and unsecured networks.

Is an NGFW Required if a Company Is Using a UTM Firewall?

An NGFW is not strictly required if a company is already using a UTM firewall, as UTM devices typically include NGFW features along with additional security functions. However, the decision should be based on the specific security needs and network architecture of the company, as NGFWs may offer more features and performance.