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How Do You Eat a Network Security Elephant?

A cloud security take on an old riddle: analyze risks, deploy scalable model, and leave room for dessert

One byte at a time.

Now before you roll your eyes at my stupid pun, consider the deeper wisdom to this IT twist on an very old adage.

Security is big. It encompasses a great many definitions, confronts a great many issues and is addressed through a great many solutions using a great many formats. For many organizations, it can be an overwhelming proposition. Beyond the issues of data defense, regulatory compliance, traffic management, identity regulation, archiving, reporting, access control, intrusion detection, encryption, app administration, help desk assistance, there is the job the IT pro was hired to do…ensure the smooth technical operation of their organization. Securing the disappearing network perimeter and beyond has become more than a full-time job in itself.

This is a Gordian Knot conundrum for smaller enterprises and SMBs. In many cases, they are under the same threat, responsible to the same agencies for compliance and simply don’t have the bandwidth, or budget. But security is too big to ignore, yet too big to eat the whole elephant. Often it comes down to a decision between limited scope and performance. At the risk of seriously mixing my metaphors, it is like being asked to make a choice between wearing a suit of armor or holding a shield.

Most companies will invest barely enough to stave off penalties but not enough to honestly protect their assets or regularly avoid further audit scrutiny.  This usually means a base level of protection of firewalls, email scanners, malware detection and sys-log archiving. They chose the shield even though they know the suit of armor is a better course of action.

Now I don’t advocate buying a suit of armor because I am an armorer. There is responsible defense and then there’s overkill. But, remember, there’s still an elephant in the room. And that elephant is that inside salesman who  leaves under less than ideal circumstances; he’s the brute force and denial of service attack feints; he’s every at risk password, spoof, phish, hack, breach; every suspicious IP address from China and repeated failed login; and in this case what you don’t know will eventually hurt you.

And so, the elephant still remains uneaten. But it doesn’t mean you have to break the bank. It doesn’t mean you have to hire an army of experts. Eating a security elephant starts by eating it one byte at a time…and that means creating a coherent strategy of priorities that match the need of your size, your hierarchy, your industry, your growth arc while understanding your risk exposure. The fact that your SMB is modestly sized, does not mean you’re less likely to be infiltrated or that your data is more secure because you operate under the proverbial radar. It’s simply faulty logic. As I’ve emphasized  in earlier blogs (here, here, and here), its not even a matter of if, but when. But in all honesty, it’s probably already happening on some level (studies and stats noted here).

So going back to our palatable pachyderm…the over arching issue is not just how to eat the elephant, but knowing which are the edible parts and which bites provide the most nutrition. For many it comes down to how much is in the wallet and how many diners there are at the table. So if we are going to eat this elephant one byte at a time…where does the first fork plunge in (sorry to my vegetarian friends for this extended metaphor!)?

It’s a different answer for most companies, but there are certain common denominators: asset protection and regulatory compliance integrity. The answer is more than firewalls and latent sys-log collection and review.  For many companies that first bite is a variation of intrusion detection (boundary defense), application monitoring, network device monitoring, developing and reviewing audit logs, data loss prevention processes and alert procedures. Based on the requirements developed by most regulatory agencies (PCI, FFIEC, FISMA,  HIPAA…), this is a hybrid of several solutions, but SIEM (security information and security event management) and log management play the central role.

In a survey sponsored by a Microsoft funded think tank, the results showed that security frugality makes one a soft target for data theft. But we’ve always known security is a “get what you pay for proposition.” If you pay for a shield, your entire back flank is exposed. However, you just can’t support the cost for a full set of armor. Yes, frugality can be precarious, but if funding and resources are spent wisely, even a modest company expands the effectiveness of its security capabilities.

Cloud security is that equalizer that removes the emphasis on capital expenditures and intensive man hours and places them on end results. The concept of SIEM (intrusion detection, real-time alerting, stack correlation) is sound, but the application is often beyond the operation and budget scope of small companies. SIEM from the cloud removes those cost obstacles; no servers to buy, no suites to install. But let’s make this first bite even more delicious…what if it could also incorporate the features and functions of an enterprise log management deployment for the same cost?

As a single bite, it makes great sense.  It has great “nutrition;” it’s a cost-effective “meal;” and leaves room to add another bite when you’re “hungry” later on.  As an important priority, it addresses key concerns such as knowing who is accessing your network perimeter, enforcing actionable plans to deal with suspicious activity, streamlining tedious compliance reporting,  maintaining vital privacy directives, and creating 24/7/365 real time visibility on your assets. The survey referenced above noted 62 percent of cloud-adopters said their levels of privacy protection increased. Nearly all, or 91 percent, of the SMBs using the cloud said their cloud provider made it easier for them to satisfy compliance requirements. This is in stark contrast to the 39% of on-premise users who said compliance requirements barred them from using cloud applications.

Another benefit is the scalability of your first bite. To some, SIEM and Log could be this full-size elephant with large tusks: analyzing upwards of 2000 events per second, monitoring hundreds or thousands of devices. But if your company is a tenth of that size, you don’t need all that power. You need an elephant that fits on your right-sized plate. Again security from the cloud allows for the same enterprise-class power, but at a significantly scaled back deployment. And the cost is right-sized as well. In many cases there are package bundles and tiered programs that make this bite more than manageable.

So, to recap…how do you eat a security elephant? Analyze your company’s existing risks with what you are currently doing (or not doing!), identify specific needs to improve or expand based on those vulnerability gaps, develop a priority list based on your technical capacity with deference to regulatory requirements and client/brand trust, address the highest priority that has the furthest reaching impact, deploy a scalable model that generates manageable TCO, measure results and….

Leave room for the next bite…and that just might be including a new division or department for monitoring/assessment,  Identity Management (IDaaS), Access control, single sign on, automatic provisioning, password management, SaaS federation or a long line of other important victuals. Which, by the way, can all be deployed, managed and unified in the cloud.

Kevin Nikkhoo

Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together” – Vincent Van Gogh


More Stories By Kevin Nikkhoo

With more than 32 years of experience in information technology, and an extensive and successful entrepreneurial background, Kevin Nikkhoo is the CEO of the dynamic security-as-a-service startup Cloud Access. CloudAccess is at the forefront of the latest evolution of IT asset protection--the cloud.

Kevin holds a Bachelor of Science in Computer Engineering from McGill University, Master of Computer Engineering at California State University, Los Angeles, and an MBA from the University of Southern California with emphasis in entrepreneurial studies.

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