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Ex-NetScreen CEO joins start-up

The former CEO of NetScreen Technologies has moved on to a new upstart. Can he make the same magic work again?

Can the former chief executive officer of NetScreen Technologies make history repeat itself?

A small start-up called Infoblox is banking on it. The company, which has built a server device that runs several identity protocols at once, announced earlier this week that it has hired Robert Thomas, NetScreen's former CEO, as its own chief executive.

While at NetScreen, Thomas grew the company from a development-stage start-up with 31 employees to a flourishing public company with 950 employees. He also helped bring the company to a successful initial public offering in 2001. In February 2004, he helped sell the company to Juniper Networks in a deal worth $4 billion.

Now Thomas is looking to do it all over again.

"I was very fortunate that we were successful at NetScreen," he said. "I learned lots of lessons that I hope to apply here."

Infoblox, founded in 1999, has developed a server device that allows companies to run several identity protocols--such as DNS, DHCP, Radius and LDAP--at once, instead of running them on separate platforms, as most companies do today. Thomas argued that the old approach adds complexity and expense to the network.

These standard protocols, some of which have been around for nearly a decade, are used to help large companies and service providers apply security policies to their networks.

The domain name system, or DNS, is used in the public Internet and private intranets to translate names of host computers into IP addresses. Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol, or DHCP, allows computers to get temporary or permanent IP addresses from central servers. Remote Authentication Dial-In User Service, or Radius, is the de facto standard for authenticating users accessing networks remotely. And finally, Lightweight Directory Access Protocol, or LDAP, is the standard protocol for clients accessing directory servers.

These protocols have become even more important to networking, because companies are now using them as part of an end-to-end security architecture. For example, Cisco and Microsoft plan to use Radius in their architectures, allowing networking devices to check the health of end points before they connect to the network.

Thomas compared today's identity server market to that of the security market before NetScreen came on the scene. Like the identity market, companies bought point products for every security function, such as firewalls and virtual private networks. NetScreen was one of the first companies to introduce a product that allowed customers to buy a single device that offered several security functions. Over the past couple of years, sales of these products have risen considerably.

"It's a natural product evolution in product development to collapse functionality onto a single device to make it easier and simpler to use," Thomas said.

Although he believes that Infoblox has an excellent strategy and product, Thomas acknowledged that one can't build a company in hopes that it will simply be acquired.

"Selling NetScreen to Juniper was the right thing to do at the right time," he said. "Our goal with Infoblox is to build a standalone company. You can't just hope and wait for an acquisition. I definitely think there is a public play for this company."