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Securing America's Defense Computers Becomes Big Business

August 2010
By Michael A. Robinson, SIGNAL Magazine

A blue-sky approach may be enabled by clouds.

It is almost impossible to overstate the importance computer networks and Internet-oriented applications play in today’s federal arena. After all, Pentagon officials constantly stress the military superiority inherent in net-centric warfare in which voice, data, satellite images and video provide essential battlefield information in real time. In this electronic enclave, U.S. fighting forces always stay at least one step ahead of the enemy.

Of course, this assumes the Defense Department not only has high bandwidth for blazing speeds but secure networks as well. It is the latter element that poses the greatest threat to sharing vital military information. An analogy may put into perspective the increasing challenge to computer networks: Imagine relaxing on a patio on a balmy summer evening and then suddenly being attacked by mosquitoes—47,000 of them, no less.

That is where David G. DeWalt comes in. No, he is not selling bug spray, at least not literally. DeWalt, 46, is the chief executive officer (CEO) of the computer security firm McAfee Incorporated, a major supplier to defense, intelligence and civilian agencies. In a recent interview with SIGNAL Magazine, the former college wrestling star and scratch golfer offered his assessment of the threat to the federal government’s critical computer networks.

“In my three years here as CEO of McAfee, I’ve seen literally an exponential increase in the threat landscape,” DeWalt says. “We’ve watched the amount of malware, the amount of net new malware, the types of threats, the sophistication and the coordination really elevate year over year.

“Of course, now we are seeing not just the run-of-the-mill cybercrime criminal groups, virtual organizations. We are seeing terroristic activities, espionage and even some Cold War-type cyberwar activities.

“It is a pretty heightened landscape. So, you really get a whole number of variables kind of adding up to a scenario we have today, and that is a heightened sense of urgency related to government, defense, intelligence and commercial organizations to upgrade their infrastructures and protect themselves better,” he declares.

No wonder McAfee is registering significant sales increases. Since joining the company in 2007, DeWalt has guided McAfee through 16 consecutive quarters of double-digit revenue gains. Last year, the company brought in a record $1.93 billion. Net income came in at $173.4 million, essentially flat compared with 2008 but up nearly 50 percent from the roughly $118.2 million earned in 2005.

Though he does not provide statistics regarding federal sales, DeWalt says that government agencies remain crucial customers. Corporate clients and governments together account for nearly 60 percent of sales, with sales to defense and intelligence communities up nearly 1,000 percent in five years.

It is easy to see why. Some cybersecurity experts like to talk about the number of cyberattacks on computer networks. DeWalt said he prefers to look at the increase in the dissemination of malicious software referred to as malware.

“It is a piece of [software] code that was written for harm,” DeWalt explains. “And we track that as an absolute number. Even if two companies got hit with the same malware, it is only one attack. If hundreds of companies get hit in the same attack we count that as only one.

“We got 34 million samples of malware last year,” he continues. “To give you a little context about this, 34 million samples in one year is driving somewhere around 47,000 a day. This is enormous. That includes Trojan horses, viruses, bots, botnets—a bunch of categories of malicious activities. Malware comes to your firewall, your Web, to your e-mail through your end point, through your USB sticks, through your phones. It can come from anywhere.”

DeWalt understands the threat on both a professional level and a personal level. He says he has remained a computer enthusiast since he got his first personal computer, an Atari, at age 14. That machine, or more accurately his reaction to it, changed his life. DeWalt says he took the computer apart and put it back together. He then studied computer science in high school in his native Delaware, later taking a degree in that subject and in electrical engineering at the University of Delaware.

After that, he loaded up his car and headed west to the epicenter of the computer revolution, Silicon Valley. His first big break occurred at Oracle Corporation, a relational database company that is now a world leader in business software.

Answering the entrepreneurial call, he started his own database company, Quest Software, with a college friend. He then became president and CEO of Documentum, a move that rocketed him to success. At Documentum, DeWalt led the company through nine consecutive quarters of growth, five quarters of record revenue and the acquisition of four companies. He then oversaw the sale of Documentum to EMC for $1.9 billion.

Software became one of his major concerns at EMC, which is better known as a hardware company that makes data storage devices. DeWalt helped form the company’s software group that moved EMC into information technology. After three promotions, he became president of software, sales and services.

DeWalt retains the competitive edge that helped him become a winning collegiate athlete. While wrestling for the University of Delaware, he won three East Coast Conference titles, a school record. DeWalt advanced to the National Collegiate Athletic Association championship three times. His official biography says he became the university’s first wrestler inducted to its Athletics Hall of Fame.

He still excels at sports. Earlier this year, DeWalt finished third in the pro-am division of the Verizon Heritage golf tournament held at Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. For exercise, he likes to ride a bicycle, swim and jog. A resident of an upscale community in San Francisco’s East Bay, DeWalt says his three children—a son who is 13 and two daughters, ages 12 and 10—also participate in sports.

Meanwhile, DeWalt has his head in the clouds. That is a reference to Internet-based computing, a new paradigm in which data no longer is shared via direct computer-to-server connections. Known as cloud computing, this new paradigm makes for whole-scale sharing of information among a wide range of devices, from PCs to cell phones to television sets—anything that can connect to the Internet.

While cloud computing greatly increases productivity and drives down business overhead, it also brings with it threats to computer security. As a company DeWalt describes as a “pure play” on security, McAfee offers the Pentagon important safeguards, he says.

“We have essentially built a database in the cloud that is accessible by all end points,” DeWalt declares. “Network appliances, mobile phones, anything that is IP [Internet protocol] addressable can connect to our cloud and essentially gain access to intelligence about, you know, ‘is this piece of content I got in an e-mail good or bad?’

“This has now been one of our strongest assets in the world. We do business in 110 countries. Our intelligence database is very, very vast. We went from a little more than a year ago having about one million queries a day on our cloud database to now in excess of four billion a day.

“The beauty and the brilliance of it is that this is our differentiator. We have a database that is all-time, real-time collecting data from all over the world. It’s got a follow-the-sun model. It’s gathering and collecting information even while America sleeps.”