Palo Alto Networks Buys Cyber Security Startup Founded By Former NSA Engineers, Morta

In its first acquisition, security company Palo Alto Networks is acquiring stealthy cyber security startup Morta Security. Financial details were not disclosed about the transaction, but Morta raised over $1 million from Andreessen Horowitz, Data Collective, Greylock Partners, Norwest Venture Partners, Data Collective, Larry Link, and Peter Wagner.

While the startup remained in stealth over the past year and didn’t reveal any details on its product, Morta was developing a new technology to counter advanced cyber threats. The startup is based on the premise that traditional layered network defense is broken and their offering will actually be able to fend off advanced attackers from complex hacks and more.

The Morta team brings an interesting set of skills and deep expertise to Palo Alto Networks, gained through experience at the NSA, the U.S. Air Force, and others. Palo Alto Networks says the acquisition will help its WildFire threat protection offerings, including the development of new toolsets that will accelerate the detection of sophisticated cyber threats and enable advanced protection capabilities for Palo Alto Networks enterprise security platform customers.

For background, Palo Alto Networks’s proprietary hardware and software detects data threats as they come into an enterprise environment. It’s made for the new types of attacks that come through the web in the form of malware. The company’s offering is designed for all the ways people access the web, either through their laptops or their mobile devices. What makes Palo Alto Networks distinct is that it goes beyond what traditional firewalls are capable of doing. Most networking technology is meant for threats that come from basic email or web browsing. But today’s threats come in the form of botnet attacks and other modern techniques, such as phishing attacks.

In a call with TechCrunch today, Palo Alto’s founder and CTO Nir Zuk says that there is a new generation of sophisticated threats for enterprise networks including sandboxing and others. Malware was part of the first and second generation of attacks, he adds. But with the third generation, there are little protections from these more sophisticated attacks. Shah says his technology addresses detection of this third generation of attacks.

Morta will help the company detect and prevent some of the world’s more advanced cyber attacks, and has said in the past that it has an “unconventional approach to security” because the core team has expertise from playing “critical roles in cyber defense at places such as the National Security Agency and U.S. Military.” These tools, technologies and experiences from Morta’s talent will be brought to Palo Alto Networks, says Shah.

This acquisition is certainly interesting considering the recent acquisition of Mandiant by security company FireEye for $1 billion. Zuk compared Mandiant to “the Ghostbusters of cyber security,” meaning that the company cleans up the mess after it happens. Morta and Palo Alto, he says, is actually tackling the problem at a different place — the detection level.

While the Morta deal is significantly smaller, and the functions of the startups vary, perhaps we’ll be seeing more consolidation in the network and cyber security world in 2014.