Quocirca Insights


January 8, 2015  11:02 AM

Video conferencing – why use it?

Rob Bamforth Rob Bamforth Profile: Rob Bamforth
Uncategorized

What is it with video conferencing?

The technology has been around for decades; its been seen as an inherent part of sci-fi on film and TV over a similar period; networks from fibre to 3G have been touted as being great for it; and yet it still doesn’t appear to have made the transition from unusual to everyday.

Some of the fault lies with technology. Video conferencing was once cumbersome and difficult to use, which has engendered a persistent perception of users needing handholding. Differences between vendors and systems have led to stubborn interoperability issues, which even standards have struggled to completely eradicate. Plus, there are lingering inconsistencies between any single vendors own systems as they make rapid product improvements in what is still a relatively dynamic sector.

There have been many technical advances in business video systems, but according to a recent worldwide survey, commissioned by Polycom, of over 800 existing business video conferencing users, over a quarter find video conferencing to be too complicated, and making it easier to use is the number one thing most believe would increase usage.

The consumer experience of video conferencing has evolved significantly too. While the marketing of video calling over 3G phones turned out to be a complete flop and even mighty Apple has not been able to switch everyone into a mobile video call with FaceTime, there is no doubt that video usage has become more popular elsewhere. The usage might not be regular callingor conferencingbut through a combination of easy (and free) tools like Skype, cheap video cameras and YouTube uploads, more have become acclimatised to the use of video.

The quality of the experience might often be poorer than that of business video conferencing, but the user is comfortable with it, and this is critical to generating more widespread use of video for business. User comfort, or the lack of it, is a major reason that holds back the adoption of video conferencing. It has not yet become as natural a thing to do as making a phone call in the workplace.

Does there need to be more widespread business use of video? Yes, but the reasons are more complex than portrayed by early video conferencing solution marketing messages. Saving money by reducing the amount of business travel is certainly a prime driver for increasing the use of video. These are tangible savings, which although rarely actually measured by most organisations are at least directly attributable.

While they are positive, travel savings are generally insufficient to stimulate sufficient investment in video and it is here that the less tangible, but potentially far more valuable benefits, become more important. Part of the benefit in travel reduction is in reality saving time; travel time, of course, but also setup time, ‘waiting for someone to respond’ time and time spent afterwards trying to sort out what it was all about.

This can be far more critical than simply saving a business traveller from a tedious journey.

The NHS in Lancashire and Cumbria has implemented tele-health services using high definition video to normalise behavior, meaning patients feel comfortable and are able to easily connect at the touch of a button.  This approach has worked specifically very well for renal patients, reducing the need for hospital visits and allowing a large network of doctors to collaborate without scheduling or travel restrictions.

Removing wasted time not only makes individuals more efficient, it will also be speeding up the overall decision-making process and therefore customer responsiveness. These benefits are all harder to define and measure for a straightforward ROI calculation, but most people know they are there from the first time they picked up a phone to avoid spending time making a journey.

The thing about phone calls is they can only be of real value if the caller knows they can call someone wherever they need or want to, and knows the recipient will have a means of answering. i.e. ubiquitous communications. Adding video to re-introduce the non-verbal aspects back into remote communication seems a natural progression, but only if it touches everybody, equally.

There are many organisations that have already have some video conferencing systems, but with different levels of adoption. In some there are pockets of frequent or proficient users; it might be the main board, a team of engineers or a distributed marketing group. In others there are handfuls of systems that sit idle; meeting rooms used for other purposes, executive desktops that no one else is allowed to touch, or systems no one remembers quite how they work.

To encourage individuals to feel more comfortable with video in a business setting requires a shift in the attitude and culture of the organisation. Video needs to become a normal, everyday activity, used by everyone, wherever they are (any room, any device) whenever it is required. It needs to be instilled in an organisation from top to bottom and in an individuals working practices from day one.

Why?

Confidence.

It might feel like a bigger leap, but just like many other forms of communication – public speaking, using the phone, writing letters, document sharing – not only do the right sort of facilities need to be in place, but people need to feel comfortable to use them and to get the most out of them.

It takes practice, but with regular use, anyone can become an effective communicator in any medium, including video, and better communication builds better collaboration and ultimately a more efficient and effective business. For a more detailed look at cultures of video adoption, click here for a free report based on the worldwide survey of over 800 video conferencing users

December 17, 2014  7:24 AM

Many attacks may still be random, security should not be

Bob Tarzey Profile: Bob Tarzey
IOS, malware

With all the talk of targeted attacks, it easy to lose sight of the fact that for the majority of us, especially in our lives as consumers, random malware is still the greatest danger. Random malware is distributed en masse, by whatever means, in the hope it will find its way onto the most vulnerable of devices. A targeted attack on the other hand, means it is you and/or your organisation, which an attacker specifically wants to penetrate, however that might be achieved.

The best protection against random attacks is still regular patching and host-based anti-malware packages. That was the message from Kaspersky Labs at recent press round table. Of course, as a vendor of such products, Kaspersky was keen to remind all present that is was not time to ditch more traditional security capabilities just because you have now invested in state-of-the-art protection against targeted attacks. Quocirca agrees, having issued similar advice in a free 2013 research report ‘The trouble heading for your business‘.

If anything, the issue of random attacks is set to get worse. More devices, with more diverse systems software, often attached to public network access points, increases the attack surface, especially as mobile devices are used more and more for online banking and payments. This will mean random attacks are not quite as random as before, malware variants will be needed for different operating systems, browsers and apps (whereas in the old days it was Windows, Windows, Windows).

However, it should still be worth the cyber-criminals’ effort as at present many mobile devices do not have anti-malware installed. Kaspersky says the focus has been on Android, but iOS users are becoming more and more of a target. Overall Kaspersky saw 295,539 new mobile malware samples in the first half of 2014.

There is also the potential for collateral damage. Although a mobile device user’s personal, banking and/or payment card details may be the primary target, where data protection controls are not in place, business data may make its way on to personal devices too. This may also be compromised with the potential to land data controllers in regulatory deep water if PII (personally identifiable information) is involved. 

Security distributor Wickhill was also at the round table and pointed out that one of the problems resellers find is that too many organisations are still rolling out applications without giving up-front consideration to appropriate security. This is especially true of SMB’s who see security as a cost not a benefit. Wickhill also finds that security is being overlooked with mobile deployments.

There was general agreement that security needed to focus on data itself rather than the rapidly dissolving network edge. This requires a holistic approach to security that applies to data wherever it is being transmitted or stored. Measures are need to control what access internal and external users have to data and what they can do with it, which was the subject of two free 2014 Quocirca reports What keeps your CEO up at night? and Neither here nor there?

Technology helps drive all this, but as Wickhill pointed out, education is also needed, both of users and the IT teams which deploy and manage the devices and applications they use. For the more lackadaisical SMBs, help is at hand. Many resellers, that are already trusted advisors to their customers, are adding managed security services to their portfolio.

Quocirca expects this will increase the uptake amongst SMBs of cloud services. This is now seen as the best way for many to acquire both infrastructure and security, as another free Oct 2014 Quocirca research report Online domain maturity shows. Kaspersky found that many early adopters of cloud services found security lacking, however, the Quocirca report shows that more recent adopters now see security as one of the main benefits of online services.

Random attacks may still be a problem to worry about, but there is no excuse for random security. The products and services are out there to make organisations, if not 100% safe, at least safer than many others. If you are targeted, you will have better chance of withstanding the onslaught, and random attacks should pass you by to trouble a weaker organisation. 


December 5, 2014  8:47 AM

Securing virtual infrastructure

Bob Tarzey Profile: Bob Tarzey
Cloud Computing, OpenStack, Platform as a Service, vCloud, VMware

When considering the security of virtual environments, it helps to point out where in the virtual stack the discussion is alluding to. There are two basic levels, the virtual platform itself and the virtual machines (VM) and associated applications deployed on such platforms. This is the first of two Quocirca blog posts aimed to provide some high level clarity regarding security in a virtual world, starting with the platform itself.

 

Virtual platforms can be privately owned or procured from cloud service providers. Those organisations that rely 100% on the use of public platforms or who outsource 100% of the management of their virtual and/or private cloud infrastructure need read little further through this first post. They have outsourced the responsibility for platform security to their provider and should refer to their service level agreement (SLA).

 

As Amazon Web Services (AWS) puts it: “AWS takes responsibly for securing its facilities, server infrastructure, network infrastructure and virtualisation infrastructure, whilst customers choose their operating environment, how it should be configured and set up its own security groups and access control lists“.

 

The AWS statement points out the areas those deploying their own virtual platforms and private clouds need to address, to ensure base security. The risk is in three areas:

  •  Security of the virtualisation infrastructure (the hypervisor)
  • Security of the resources that the hypervisor allocates to VMs
  • Virtualisation management tools and the access rights they provide to the virtual infrastructure

 

The third point includes the use of cloud orchestration tools such as OpenStack and VMware’s vCloud Director, which can be used for managing private clouds or moving VMs between compatible private and public clouds (hybrid cloud).

 

Hypervisor security

All hypervisors can, and do, contain errors in their software which lead to vulnerabilities which can be exploited by hackers. So, as with any software, there needs to be a rigorous patching regime for a given organisation’s chosen hypervisor and the management tools that support it. That said, hypervisor vulnerabilities are of little use unless they open access either to the hypervisor’s management environment or resources it has access to. Most press reports reflect this, for example, picking on the most widely used hypervisor, VMware’s ESX:

 

ThreatPost Dec 2013VMware has patched a vulnerability in its ESX and ESXi hypervisors that could allow unauthorised local access to files“, the article goes on the report that that the vulnerability has the effect of extending privilege, something hackers are always seeking.

 

Network World, Oct 2013: report on an ESX vulnerability “To exploit the vulnerability an attacker would have to intercept and modify management traffic. If successful, the hacker would compromise the hosted-VMDBs, which would lead to a denial of service for parts of the program“.

 

In both cases, VMware went on to issue a patch ensuring that fast acting customers were protected before hackers had much time to act.

 

Security of resources allocated by hypervisors

Both of the above examples underline the need to address the basic security of underlying resources; networking, storage, access controls and so on. For those that do everything in house, that includes physical access to the data centre. The considerations are pretty much the same for non-virtual deployments with one big caveat. In the virtual world many of these resources are themselves software files that are easy to create, change and move, so compromise of a file server may provide access to more than just confidential data, it may allow the virtual environment itself to be manipulated.

 

Securing use of virtual management tools

As with all IT management there are two dangers here; the outsider finding their way in with privilege or the privileged insider who behaves carelessly or maliciously. A virtual administrator, however their privileges are obtained, can change the virtual environment as they see fit without needing physical access. That may include changing the configuration and/or security settings of virtual components and/or deploying unauthorised VMs for nefarious use.

 

When it comes to access control, the management of privilege, who has it, when they have it and auditing what they do with it is similar to that for physical environments. However, there are other considerations that apply in a virtual world over and above those in a physical one. Principally this is about being able to monitor hypervisor-level events; control and audit access to key files, the copying and movement of VMs, capturing hypervisor event streams and feeding all this to security information and event management (SIEM) tools. There is also the need to define hypervisor-level security and take actions when it is breached for example closing VMs or blocking traffic to and from VMs.

 

Specialist vendors

There are certain specialist vendors that are focussed purely on the security of virtual infrastructure layer. For example Catbird specialises in reporting on and controlling security of VMware-related deployments and GroundWork which focuses on monitoring data flows in open source-based virtual environments. The suppliers of virtual platforms and tools provide support too, not least access to urgent patching advice.

 

When many mainstream IT security vendors talk about virtual security they refer to the security of deploying VMs and associated applications. Security at this level is of course important to address and has its own special considerations which will be covered in the second blog post. For those that have outsourced the virtual platform and/or the management of it, and are confident in their supplier, the focus will already be at this higher level.


December 2, 2014  11:05 AM

Think-again Tuesday?

Bob Tarzey Profile: Bob Tarzey
Cyber Monday

How did your web site stand up on Black-Friday and Cyber-Monday (Nov 28th and Dec 1st 2014)? These were expected to be the most frenetic online shopping days of the year. Whether you are an online retailer or processing the payments generated, if you were able to maintain a good customer experience and complete transactions on these busiest of days, hopefully the rest of the year was a cake walk!

 

Meeting the challenge requires a mature approach to managing your online presence as recent Quocirca research shows. The new report (see link at the end of this post) shows consumer-facing organisations to be more advanced in this regard than organisations that deal only with other businesses. They have to be; on average, consumer-facing organisations deal with three times as many registered users online as their non-consumer-facing counterparts. They also know that consumers are more impatient and capricious.

 

The report identifies seven things that consumer-facing organisations are more likely to be doing to rise to the online maturity challenge. Any organisation that underperformed on Black-Friday, Cyber-Monday or at any other time should follow their lead.

 

1: Monitor performance

Most organisations have some sort of capability to monitor the performance of their web sites and online applications. However, consumer-facing organisations are much more likely to be focussed on metrics to do with the user experience whilst their non-consumer-facing counter parts fret about bandwidth and system information. Consumer-facing organisations are able to do this because the platform basics are often outsourced.

 

2: Outsource infrastructure

Consumer-facing organisations free themselves to focus on delivering the applications and websites that are core to their business and avoid getting bogged down with infrastructure issues that are not. This includes the infrastructure on which their online resources are deployed as well as supporting services such as DNS management, content distribution and security. Indeed, a key finding of the new survey is that better security is now seen as one of the top benefits of cloud-based services.

 

3: Outsource security

Nearly all aspects of security were more likely to be outsourced by consumer-facing organisations.  This includes emergency DDoS protection, malware detection and blocking, advanced threat detection, security information and event management (SIEM) and fraud detection. The motivators for this are that applications and users are in the cloud, so the security needs to be too and, as with the base infrastructure, leaving security to experts further frees staff to focus directly on the user experience.

 

4: Deploy advanced security

It is not just that consumer-facing organisations are using cloud-based security, the protection they have in place is also more advanced. Non-consumer-facing organisations are more likely to rely on older technologies such as host-based malware protection and intrusion detection systems (IDS). Consumer-facing organisations have these capabilities too, but are much more likely to supplement them with state of the art advance security systems, be they outsourced or deployed in-house.

 

5: Take a granular approach

No two consumers are exactly the same; they will be using different devices, different browsers and have varying access speeds based on their network connection and geographic location. Consumer-facing organisations are more likely to monitor such things and adjust the way they respond to individual users accordingly.

 

6: Link the user experience metrics with business success

Having all sorts of capabilities to monitor the user experience is all well and good, but it is even more useful if it can be shown how variable delivery affects the business. Consumer-facing organisations are more likely to have a strong capability to do this, linking metrics to revenue and customer loyalty.

 

7: Find the budget to do all this

Of course putting all these capabilities in place has a cost. However, that is no barrier for the most forward thinking consumer-facing organisations; they are almost twice as likely to be increasing the budget for supporting online resources as their non-consumer-facing counterparts. Just throwing money at a problem is never an answer in its own right, but if the spending is well-focussed it can make real difference as those that coped best over the last few days will surely know.

 

Organisations that only deal with other businesses may say; ‘what has all this got to do with us?‘ Well, as more and more digital natives enter the work place they will bring their consumer expectations and habits with them. All businesses need a razor-sharp focus on the online experience. For those that fail to do so, it will not just be Black-Friday and Cyber-Monday that they lose business; it will be every day of the year.

 

*The report was sponsored by Neustar (a supplier of online security and monitoring services) and is free to download at this this link:

http://hello.neustar.biz/QuocircaDomainMaturityReport_it_security_lp.html


November 14, 2014  1:58 PM

Car ownership – a dying thing?

Clive Longbottom Clive Longbottom Profile: Clive Longbottom
Earth, mars, satellite, SpaceX, twitter

At a recent BMC event, CEO and Chairman Bob Beauchamp stood on stage and gave a view on how the rise of the autonomous car could result in major changes in many different areas.

The argument went something along these lines – as individuals start to use autonomous cars, they see less value in the vehicle itself.  The “driving experience” disappears, and the vehicle is seen far more as a tool than a desirable object.  By using autonomous vehicles, congestion can be avoided, both through the vehicles adapting to driving conditions, accidents being avoided, areas where non-autonomous vehicles are causing problems being by-passed and so on. The experience becomes an analogue to SDN – the car’s function can be seen as the data plane (it gets from point A to point B) is decided by a set of commands (control plane deciding what should happen) through commands issues by the management plane (what is the best way to get from point A to point B?).

It is then seen that the tool is not being used that much – for long periods of time, it is in the garage, drive or roadway doing nothing.  It needs to be insured; needs to be maintained – it becomes an issue, rather than a “must have”.

Far better to just rent a vehicle as and when you need it – a “car as a service” approach means that you don’t need to maintain the vehicle.  Insurance is a moot point – you aren’t driving the vehicle anyway; it is the multiple computer “brains” that are doing so, working a full 360 degrees at computer speed, never getting tired; never failing to notice and extrapolate events going on around them.  Insurance is cheaper and only has to cover damage caused by e.g. vandalism and fire: theft is out, as the vehicle is autonomous anyway and can be tied in to a central controller.

Insurance companies struggle; car manufacturers have to move away from marketing based on seeing fast cars driving on deserted roads to selling to large centralised fleet managers who are only interested in overall lifetime cost of ownership.  Houses can change – no need for a garage or a drive and cities can change with less need of parking spaces.  More living space can be put in the same area – or more properties on the same plot of land. Autonomous driving means less time spent commuting; less frustration; less fuel being used up in stop-start traffic.

When Bob first said this, my immediate response was “it will never happen”.  I like my car; I like the sense of personal ownership and the driving experience that I get – on an open road.

However, I then took more of an outside view of it.  Already, I have friends in large cities such as London who do not own a car.  They use public transport for a lot of their day-to-day needs, and where they need a vehicle, they hire one for a short period of time.  Whereas this may have been on a daily basis via Hertz or Avis in the past, newer companies such as City Car Club allow you rent a vehicle by the hour and pick it up from a designated parking bay close to you and drop it off in the same way wherever you want.  The rise of Uber as a callable taxicab company is also showing how more people want the ease of using a car, but not in owning the vehicle themselves.  These friends have no requirement for a flashy car badge or for the capability to get in “their” car and drive it at any time – in fact, the majority do not like driving at all, and would jump at the chance of using an autonomous vehicle, so removing this last issue for them.

As tech companies like Google improve their autonomous vehicles on a rapid basis, manufacturers such as Mercedes Benz, Ford and GM are having to respond.  Already, over fifty 500 tonne Caterpillar and Komatsu trucks are being used in Australia to move mining material, running truly autonomously in convoys across private roads in the outback, allowing 24×7 operations with lower safety issues. 

Just as the car manufacturers are coming out of a very bad period, they now stand a chance of being hit by new players in the market.  Elon Musk, of Tesla electric car fame, is a strong proponent of autonomous vehicles.  Amazon would like to take on Google, and it is likely that other high-tech companies will look to the Far East for help in building simple vehicles that can be used in urban situations via a central subscription model.

Sure, such a move to a predominantly autonomous vehicle model will take some time.  There will be dinosaurs such as myself who will fight to maintain ownership of a car that has to be manually driven.  There will be the need to show that the vehicle is truly autonomous; that it does not require continuous connectivity to a network to maintain a safe environment.  More companies such as City Car Club will need to be brought about, and suitable long-term business and technology models put in place to manage large car fleets and get them to customers rapidly and effectively without a need for massive acreage of space to store cars not being used.  Superfast recharging systems need to be more commonplace; these vehicles need to be able to recharge in minutes rather than hours, or to use replaceable battery packs.

Certainly, moving to the use of autonomous electronic vehicles where overall utilisation rates can be pushed above 60% would result in far less congestion in city centres and so in less pollution, less impact on citizens’ health and less time wasted in the morning and evening rush hours. Indeed, Helsinki has set itself a target of zero private car ownership by 2025.

At the current rate of innovation and improvement in autonomous vehicles, it is becoming more of a “when” than an “if” as to when we will see a major change in car ownership.  The impact on existing companies involved in the car industry cannot be underestimated.  The need for improved technology and for technology vendors to work together to ensure that an autonomous future can and will happen is showing signs of being met.


November 10, 2014  11:41 AM

The problem of buggy software components

Bob Tarzey Profile: Bob Tarzey
OpenSSL

What do Heartbleed, Shellshock and Poodle all have in common? Well apart from being software vulnerabilities discovered in 2014, they were all found in pre-built software components, used by developers to speed-up the development of their own bespoke programs. Heartbleed was in OpenSSL (an open source toolkit for implementing secure access to web sites), Shellshock was in the UNIX Bash shell (which enables the running of UNIX operating system commands from programs), whilst Poodle was another SSL vulnerability.

 

Also common to all three is that they were given fancy names and well publicised. This is not a bad thing; it gives the press something to hang its hat on and gets the message out to software developers that a bug needs fixing. The time lag between zero day, when a vulnerability is first identified, and the bug being patched is the window of opportunity for hackers to exploit it. With Heartbleed in particular, there was also advice for the general public, to change their passwords for certain web sites that used the vulnerable version of OpenSSL.

 

However, these widely publicised bugs are just the tip of the iceberg, as data from HP’s Security Research (HPSR) team reveals. HPSR uncovers software security flaws on behalf of its customers and the boarder community. Unlike the discoverers of Heartbleed, Shellshock and Poodle, HPSR does not seek publicity for all the flaws it hunts down via its Zero Day Initiative (ZDI) programme; not least because there are so many of them.

 

HPSR has a number of ways of seeking vulnerabilities out. Some it simply buys from white hat hackers (those who look for ways to hack software code, but not to exploit the flaws they find). It also sponsors an annual competition to find flaws called Pwn2Own; the 2014 event uncovered 33 in software from Adobe, Apple, Google, Microsoft and Mozilla. On top of this HPSR does its own research. In total in 2014 ZDI has uncovered over 500 bugs, two thirds of which have been patched, it estimate 50-75% of these were in software components. HPSR claims ZDI is the number one finder of bugs in deployed versions of Microsoft software.

 

As an HPSR rep points out ‘these days most software is composed not written‘, meaning that software is largely built from pre-constructed components. In fact, not using components would be highly inefficient, as it would mean constantly re-inventing the wheel, especially when many components are cheap or free via open source. However, the number of bugs in software components means that users need more effective ways to monitor their use and fix problems that arise. This is especially true of open source components, as anyone can contribute to them. HPSR contends that commercial software vendors could strengthen the open source movement by investing more resources to ensure open source components are well-tested and secure.

 

Of course, the broader HP has an interest in all this for two reasons. First, as a builder and supplier of software, HP is a big user of components. Second, it also helps its customers build and deploy safer software through its Fortify product range. In February 2014 HP announced its Fortify Open Review Project to identify and report on security vulnerabilities in widely used open-source software components. HP also announced improved component checking support for its on-demand scanning service by partnering with Sonatype to use its Component Lifecycle Management analysis technology.

 

HP is not alone in recognising the need for safer component use. Veracode, another software security vendor, estimates that components constitute up to 90% of the code in some in-house developed applications. In September 2014 Veracode added a ‘software composition analysis‘ into its static software scanning service to protect customers more rapidly from zero day vulnerabilities discovered in components.

With the introduction of software composition analysis Veracode can now create an inventory of all the components used by a given customer, detailing the programs in which each is embedded. When a new vulnerability is identified in a component, Veracode can take rapid and pervasive action; either applying fixes immediately or isolating already deployed applications until patches are available.

 

This further enhances its ability to protect customers from newly discovered vulnerabilities. Its dynamic scanning service, which tests deployed executables, would pick many of these up too. However, it focusses on common paths through applications and may miss obscure parts that are rarely or never used, but a hacker may focus exactly on these areas once a vulnerability becomes public knowledge.

 

As Veracode points out, most IT departments are managing software code that was largely not built in-house. The only control, security teams have over software is to maintain effective scanning capabilities with an awareness of components to help understand inherited risk. Software components are not going to disappear; their value to business is too great, security teams need to learn how to live with them.


November 3, 2014  9:52 AM

Google Glass – seeing is believing

Bob Tarzey Profile: Bob Tarzey

I must admit to being sceptical about the whole ‘wearables’ thing. However, I was intrigued at recent Google event to be given an opportunity to try out a pair of Google Glass glasses. Glasses have been part of my life for as long as I can remember and here-in lay a problem. Google Glass assumes reasonable distance vision, so if you already wear glasses to correct for this, then the only way to try out Google’s device proved to be wearing them on top of your normal specs. Still, it was only a demo, so style could be set aside!

The Google Glass equivalent of a screen is a translucent rectangle hanging in the upper right of your vision (think of walking down a street and reading a hanging pub sign). You might not want to read a book or watch a movie using such a display, but it was obvious it would be great for following directions or displaying information about museum exhibits or landscapes.

Apparently you can control the Google Glass menu by jolting your head, however, I did not master this. It conjures a future of people walking along the street making involuntary head movements (I suppose we have got used to the idea that people who are seemingly talking to themselves are no longer all mad, but usually using a Bluetooth mobile phone mic). You can also control Google Glass by swiping the arm of the glasses with your finger or by talking to them with certain prefaced commands.

So, if you have perfect 20/20 vision and are prepared to enter the bespectacled world to take advantage of Google Glass, what style choice do you have? You can choose from five different frames from the designer Net-a-Porter, which is not quite the range you might have in the local opticians, but it’s a start. And, if you need your long term vision correcting, you can have prescription lenses fitted (the lenses are nothing to do with the device; indeed, you can wear them lens-free with just the frame).

In fact as the Google rep demoing the device pointed out, Google Glass is little more than a face mounted smartphone. So, when it comes to IT security the considerations are pretty much the same as for any personal device. Data can be stored and the internet accessed on Google Glass and therefore, in certain circumstances, their use may need to be controlled. You could argue that taking pictures or making videos would be more surreptitious with Google Glass than a standard smartphone, however, stylish as Google has tried to make its specs, it would still be pretty obvious you were wearing them, unless efforts have been made to conceal them with a hat or veil.

Privacy objections seem more likely. Google Glass and similar devices, that will surely follow if the form-factor takes off, may revolutionise certain job roles. Employees working in warehouses, hospitals or inspecting infrastructure in the field may really benefit from being able to see and record their activity whilst having both hands free. However, an employer with constant insight into what an employee is doing and seeing may be too much for some regulators. Time will tell.


October 27, 2014  1:09 PM

Cloud & mobile security – take aim, save the data

Rob Bamforth Rob Bamforth Profile: Rob Bamforth
BYOD, Data-security, Europe, France, Wi-Fi, WODA

In all the hubbub around mobile users increasingly making their own choices of operating systems and hardware, something has been lost sight of – it doesn’t really matter if you bring your own device (BYOD), a more pressing matter for businesses should be where is our data accessed? (WODA).

This issue extends beyond the choice of the mobile endpoint as increasingly ‘mobile’ doesn’t simply mean a single mobile touchscreen tablet alternative to a fixed desktop PC, but multiple points or modes of access with users flitting between them to use whichever is most appropriate (or to hand) at any moment in time. What has become mobile is the point of access to the business process, not just the hardware.

This multiplicity of points of mobile access – some corporate owned, some not – means that when IT services are required on the move they are often best delivered ‘as a service’ from the network, so it is no wonder that the growth in acceptance of cloud seems to have symbiotically mirrored the growth of mobile.

Both pose a similar challenge to the embattled IT manager. A significant element of control has been taken away – essentially the steady operating platform ‘rug’ has been pulled from under their feet.

So how do they retain some balance and control?

The first thing is to accept that things have changed. BYOD is more than a short-lived fad; most people have embraced their inner nerd and now have an opinion about what technology they like to use, and what they don’t like. They buy it and use it as a fundamental part of their personal life from making social connections to paying utility bills. Most people are more productive if comfortable with familiar technology, so why force them to use something else?

However, enterprise data needs to be under enterprise control. Concerns about data are generally much higher than those surrounding applications and the devices themselves. This is a sensible, if accidental, prioritisation of how to deal with BYOD – first focus on corporate data. Unfortunately, few organisations have either a full document classification system or an approach to store mobile data in encrypted containers separated from the rest of the data and apps that will reside on BYO devices.

These are both worthy, if rarely reached at present, goals, but at least the first steps have been taken in recognising the problem. Organisations now need to understand their data a little better, and apply measured control of valuable data in the BYOD world – which doesnt look like diminishing any time soon.

In the core infrastructure, things have changed significantly too. Service provision has evolved from the convergence (or one could say, collision) of the IT industry with telecoms to deliver services on demand. IT might have been fragile with interoperability and resilience standards, but some of the positive side of telecoms has spilled over.   And eventually telecoms are starting to understand the power of supporting a portfolio of applications and that there is more to communications than voice. Cloud, or the delivery of elements of IT-as-a-service, is the active offspring of the coupling of IT and telecoms.

For businesses, struggling to do more IT with smaller budgets and fewer resources, the incremental outsourcing of some IT demands into the cloud makes sense.

However, cloud is still exhibiting some traits of the rebellious teenager. While there are some regions in Europe that appear more resistant to cloud (notably, Italy, Spain and to a lesser extent France), overall acceptance is positive, although this is across a mix of hybrid, private and public cloud approaches. There are also significant concerns about the location of data centres and the location of registration or ownership of cloud storage companies.

These are understandable in the light of recent revelations, but to enforce heavy security on all data ‘just in case’ would be excessive and counterproductive. Thankfully, most companies seem to realise this, and there is a pragmatic mix of opinions as to how to best store and secure data held in the cloud.

This needs to be an informed decision, however, and just as with mobile, all organisations need to be taking a more forensic approach to their digital assets. IT needs to work hand in hand with the business to identify those assets and data that are most precious, assess the vulnerability and apply appropriate controls, differentiated from other things that are neither valuable nor private as far as the organisation is concerned. The days of blanket approaches to data security are over.

For more information and recent research into cloud and mobile security, download this free Quocirca report, Neither here nor there.


October 23, 2014  9:31 AM

BMC – turnaround or more of the same?

Clive Longbottom Clive Longbottom Profile: Clive Longbottom
BMC, Cloud Computing, Dell, Distributed computing, IBM, information technology, ServiceNow, Software as a Service

A little over a year ago, BMC was not looking good.  It had a portfolio of good, but tired technology and was failing to move with the times.  Internal problems at various levels in the company were leading to high levels of employee churn.  Things did not look good.

Led by CEO Bob Beauchamp, BMC was taken off the stock market and into private ownership. Investors were chosen based on their long term vision: what Beauchamp did not want was an approach of drive revenues and then cash in rapidly.

This has freed up BMC to take a new marketing approach.  New hires have been brought in.  The portfolio is being rationalised.  The focus is now on the user experience, with an understanding that mobility, hybrid private/public cloud systems and the business user are all important links in the new sales process. Substantially more money has been freed up to be invested in sales & marketing and research & development than was the case in its last year as a public company.

BMC’s first new offering aimed to show an understanding of these issues was MyIT – an end-user self-service system that provides consumer-style front end systems with enterprise-grade back end capabilities.  MyIT has proved popular – and has galvanised BMC to take a similar approach across the rest of its product portfolio.

Help desk (or service desk as BMC prefers to call it) has been a mainstay of BMC over the years.  Its enterprise Remedy offering is the tool of choice in the Global 2000, but it was looking increasingly old-style in its over dependence on screens of text; was far too process-bound; and help desk agents and end users alike were beginning to question its overall efficacy in the light of new SaaS-based competition such as ServiceNow.  At its recent BMC Engage event in Orlando, BMC launched Remedy with Smart IT, a far more modern approach to service desk operation. Enabling better reach at the front end through mobile devices and better integration at the back end through to hybrid cloud services, Remedy with Smart IT offers a far more intuitive and usable experience than was previously available from BMC, available both as an on-premise and cloud-based offering.

BMC believes that it already has a strong counter-offer to ServiceNow in the mid-maturity market with its Remedyforce product (a service desk offering that runs on Salesforce’s Salesforce1 cloud platform). The cloud-based version of Remedy with Smart IT, combined with MyIT will provide a much more complete offering with a better experience for users, service desk staff and IT alike across the total service desk market.

Workload automation is another major area for BMC.  Its Control-M suite of products has enabled automation of batch and other workloads from the mainframe through to distributed systems.  However, this has been a set of highly technical products requiring IT staff with technical and scripting skills.  Now, the aim is to enable greater usage by end users themselves, enabling business value to be more easily created.

All this is a journey for BMC – identifying and dealing with the needs of end users and how automation can help is something that is changing with the underlying platform.  For example, a hybrid platform requires more intelligence to identify where a workload should reside at any time (for example on private or public cloud), and the promise of cloud in breaking down monolithic applications to create the composite application built dynamically from required functions needs contextual knowledge of how the various functions can work together. 

This needs deep integration with BMC’s products in its performance and availability group.  Being able to identify where problems are and dig down rapidly to root cause and remediate issues requires systems that can work with the service desk systems and with workload automation to ensure that business continuity is well managed.  Here BMC’s TrueSight Operations Management provides probable cause analysis based on advanced pattern matching and analytics, enabling far more proactive approaches to be taken to running an IT environment.

TrueSight also offers further value in that it is moving from being an IT tool to a business one.  Through tying in the analytics capabilities of TrueSight into business processes and issues, dashboards can be created that show the direct business impact in cash terms for any existing or future problems, enabling the business to prioritise which issues should be focused on.

BMC has to work to deal with managing IT platforms both vertically at the stack level and horizontally at the hybrid cloud level.  It has taken a little time for BMC to move effectively from being a physical IT management systems vendor to a hybrid physical/virtual one; now, via its Cloud and Data Centre Automation team in BMC is positioning itself to provide systems to both end user and service provider organisations that are independent of any tie-in to hardware vendors, differentiating itself from the likes of IBM, HP and Dell (Dell is a long-term BMC partner anyway, although its acquisition of Quest and other management vendors has provided Dell with enough capability to go its own way should it so choose). At the same time, BMC still works closely with its data centre automation customers; it has recently published what it calls the Automation Passport, a best practices methodology for using automation to transform the business value of IT.

BMC still has a strong mainframe capability, which differentiates it from many of the new SaaS-based players.  Sure, not all organisations do have a mainframe, but the capability to manage the mainframe as a peer system within the overall IT platform means that those with one only have BMC, CA and IBM to look to for such an embracing management system.  IBM’s strength is in its high-touch capacity of putting together a system once it is on the customer’s site.  BMC and CA have both been moving towards simpler messaging and portfolios, along with providing on-premise and cloud based systems to give customers greater flexibility in how they deal with their IT platforms.

Overall, BMC seems to be turning itself around.  The lack of financially-driven quarterly targets has freed up Beauchamp and his team to take a far more strategic view of where the company needs to go.  Product sales volumes are up, and customer satisfaction is solid. However, BMC has to continue with a suitable speed along this new journey – and also has to ensure that it gets its message out there far more forcibly than it is doing at the moment.


October 20, 2014  10:07 AM

Quocirca – security vendor to watch – Pwnie Express

Bob Tarzey Profile: Bob Tarzey
Uncategorized

Branches are where the rubber still hits the road for many organisations; where retailers still do most of their selling, where much banking is still carried out and where health care is often dispensed. However, for IT managers, branches are outliers, where rogue activity is hard to curb; this means branches can become security and compliance black spots.

 

Branch employees may see fit to make their lives easier by informally adding to the local IT infrastructure, for example installing wireless access points purchased from the computer store next door. Whilst such activity could also happen at HQ, controls are likely to be more rigorous. What is needed is an ability to extend such controls to branches, monitoring network activity, scanning for security issues and detecting non-compliant activity before it has an impact.

 

A proposition from Boston, USA-based vendor Pwnie Express should improve branch network and security visibility. Founded in 2010, Pwnie Express has so far received $5.1 million Series-A venture capital financing from Fairhaven Capital and the Vermont Seed Capital Fund. The name is a play on both Pony Express, the 19th century US mail system and the Pwnie Awards, a competition run each year at the Black Hat conference to recognise the best discoverers of exploitable software bugs.

 

Pwnie Express’s core offering is to monitor IT activity in branches through the installation of plugandplay in-branch network sensor hardware. These enable branch-level vulnerability management, asset discovery and penetration testing. As such the sensors can also scan for wireless access points, which may have been installed by branch employees for convenience or even by a malicious outsider, and monitor the use of employee/visitor-owned personal devices.

 

To date Pwnie monitoring has been on a one-to-one basis and so hard to scale. That has changed with the release of a new software-as-a-service (SaaS) based management platform called Pwn Pulse. This increases the number of locations that can be covered from a single console, allowing HQ-based IT management teams to extend full security testing to branches. Pwn Pulse also improves backend integration to other security management tools and security information and event management (SIEM) systems improving an organisation’s overall understanding its IT security and compliance issues.

 

Currently 25 percent of Pwnie Express’s sales are via an expanding European reseller network, mainly in the UK. With data protection laws only likely to tighten in Europe in the coming years, Pwnie Express should provide visibility into the remote locations other security tools simply cannot reach.


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