When John Alsop started selling security solutions, he also had to sell people on the concept of the Internet.
BorderWare, the Toronto-based provider of network security products, got its start 10 years ago this month —
practically the dawn of online civilization. Alsop, who founded the firm and remains its CEO, said the firm now does half its business outside North America and its products are installed in more than 55 countries.
“”We don’t really position ourselves as non-Canadian, but we do position ourselves as being a global player,”” he said. “”We’re obviously a Canadian company at heart, and the management direction comes from here.””
Alsop recently spoke with ITBusiness.ca about the ups and downs during BorderWare’s first decade.
ITBusiness.ca: What motivated you to enter the IT security market in 1994?
John Alsop: I had been involved in the networking business a few years before that. We could see that the Internet was coming. We had a link to the Net ourselves — this was back in the days before it was commercialized — and we saw that there would be a requirement for security. We decided to go off and build a firewall. You have to understand that back in 1993 it wasn’t at all clear what the market opportunity was going to be. The Internet had not made the cover of Time magazine at that point; it was still very much an academic environment with stirrings of commercial interest.
We formed Border Network Technologies and we launched the first firewall in the fall of 1994. We had just an amazing couple of years. Our timing was amazingly spot-on. There was explosive growth. The company raised some money and ended up as the No. 2 firewall in terms of worldwide market share and was No. 1 in a bunch of places in the world, and ended up getting acquired (by Secure Computing) in 1996. I went off and did some other stuff for a couple of years, and then the opportunity arose to get involved with BorderWare again and I put together some investors and we bought it back in 1998.
ITB: What kind of vision did you have the second time around?
JA: We’ve spent a couple of years getting the firewall business back to where we were happy with it, but then we really started to look around and try to determine what opportunities there were to do new and interesting things in the security space, and one of the things we picked was e-mail security. We were really looking for a market we were felt there would be, first of all, a huge opportunity, but secondly an area where we could leverage our strengths in security technology, our distribution channel and so forth.
ITB: How would you evaluate the changes in the competitive landscape since the early days?
JA: If you look at the firewall market, the top players in terms of market share are companies like Cisco and CheckPoint, which are both very large companies. In the case of the new market we’re going after now, there are no large, entrenched players. So it’s kind of like a greenfield-type market opportunity. We feel we’re well-positioned to repeat our success in the firewall market.
ITB: How have IT security priorities changed since you started, given that BorderWare preceded many of the best-known viruses?
JA: There’s a lot of people who are pretty battle-scarred and quite tired of the stuff they’ve had to put up with. In the beginning when you went out to sell somebody a firewall, you very much had to be an evangelist for the Internet itself. In those days, people were generally not already connected to the Net. They knew that they wanted to be, and they were a little bit concerned about security but didn’t necessarily understand the issues very well. The rate of adoption was slowed down a little, because you had to go through this education process. Today, of course, everybody’s an expert. They’ve been through several generations of product. When you go to the same people today and you say that in the same way you need a network firewall to deal with the network-level threats, you also need an e-mail firewall, people get that right away. They already know that e-mail is both mission-critical and a viper’s nest of nasty stuff.
ITB: Anything you didn’t know about network security 10 years ago you wished you did?
JA: I think a lot of things have been confirmed that was just speculation at the time. One of those things was that this was a long-term market that’s going to go away. Microsoft is not going to come out with a magic bullet that next week is going to cause the market to dry up. As an example, back in 1995-96, everybody was saying, “”Oh, the firewall is going to go away because Microsoft is going to come out with a firewall that runs on NT, and all the firewall vendors are going out of business. Well, Microsoft did come out with that, but meanwhile the firewall market is a $5 billion opportunity. It’s kind of the same thing with e-mail security. I’ve been saying for about three years — and people are realizing that there may be some truth to it — that the market for e-mail firewalls is the same size as the market for network firewalls. Every big company that has a network firewall needs an e-mail security gateway as well. The products sell for around the same amount of money, so it’s a good-sized market opportunity.