Blog posts by Alexei Balaganski
I have to admit that I find the very concept of a Security Operations Center extremely… cinematic. As soon as you mention it to somebody, they would probably imagine a large room reminiscent of the NASA Mission Control Center – with walls lined with large screens and dozens of security experts manning their battle stations. From time to time, a loud buzzer informs them that a new security incident has been discovered, and a heroic team starts running towards the viewer in slow motion…
Of course, in reality most SOCs are much more boring-looking, but still this cliché image from action movies captures the primary purpose of an SOC perfectly – it exists to respond to security breaches as quickly as possible in order to contain them and minimize the losses. Unfortunately, looking back at the last decade of SOC platform development, it becomes clear that many vendors have been focusing their efforts elsewhere.
Traditional Security Information and Event Management (SIEM) platforms, which have long been the core of security operations centers, have gone long way to become really good at aggregating security events from multiple sources across organizations and providing monitoring and alerting functions, but when it comes to analyzing a discovered incident, making an informed decision about it and finally mitigating the threat, security experts’ job is still largely manual and time-consuming, since traditional SIEM solutions offer few automation capabilities and usually do not support two-way integration with security devices like firewalls.
Another major problem is the sheer number of security events a typical SOC is receiving daily. The more deperimeterized and interconnected modern corporate networks become, the more open they are for new types of cyberthreats, both external and internal, and the number of events collected by a SIEM increases exponentially. Analysts no longer have nearly enough time to analyze and respond to each alert. The situation is further complicated by the fact that an overwhelming majority of these events are false positives, duplicates or otherwise irrelevant. However, a traditional SIEM offers no way to differentiate them from real threats, drowning analysts in noise and leaving them only minutes to make an informed decision about each incident.
All this leads to the fundamental problem IT industry is now facing: because of the immense complexity of setting up and operating a security operations center, which requires a large budget and a dedicated team of security experts, many companies simply cannot afford it, and even those who can are continuously struggling with the lack of skilled workforce to manage their SOC. In the end, even for the best-staffed security operations centers, the average response time to a security incident is measured in days if not weeks, not even close to the ultimate goal of dealing with them in real time.
In the recent years, this has led to the emergence of a new generation of security solutions based on Real-Time Security Intelligence. Such tools utilize Big Data analytics technologies and machine learning algorithms to correlate large amounts of security data, apply threat intelligence from external sources, detect anomalies in activity patterns and provide a small number of actionable alarms clearly ranked by their risk scores. Such tools promise to dramatically reduce the time to mitigate a breach by performing data analysis in real time, eliminating statistical noise and false positives and, last but not least, providing a high degree of automation to make the security analyst’s job easier.
Although KuppingerCole has been promoting this concept for quite a few years already, the first real products have appeared a couple years ago, and since then the market has evolved and matured at an incredible rate. Back in 2015, when KuppingerCole attempted to produce a Leadership Compass on RTSI solutions, we failed to find enough vendors for a meaningful rating. In 2017, however, we could easily identify over 25 Security Intelligence Platform solutions offered by a variety of vendors, from large veteran players known for their SIEM products to newly established innovative startups.
To be continued...
Since the notion of a corporate security perimeter has all but disappeared in the recent years thanks to the growing adoption of cloud and mobile services, information security has experienced a profound paradigm shift from traditional perimeter protection tools towards monitoring and detecting malicious activities within corporate networks. Increasingly sophisticated attack methods used by cyber criminals and even more so, the growing role of malicious insiders in the recent large scale security breaches clearly indicate that traditional approaches to information security can no longer keep up.
As the security industry’s response to these challenges, a new generation of security analytics solutions has emerged in the recent years, which are able to collect, store and analyze huge amounts of security data across the whole enterprise in real time. These Real-Time Security Intelligence solutions are combining Big Data and advanced analytics to correlate security events across multiple data sources, providing early detection of suspicious activities, rich forensic analysis tools, and highly automated remediation workflows.
Industry analysts, ourselves included, have been covering this fundamental focus shift in the information security for a few years already. However, getting that message across to the general public is not an easy task. To find out how many organizations around the world are truly understanding the critical role of security analytics technology in their corporate security strategies, earlier this year KuppingerCole has teamed up with BARC – a leading enterprise software industry analyst and consulting firm specializing in areas including Data Management and Business Intelligence – to conduct a global survey on Big Data and Information Security. Our survey was focused on security-related aspects of Big Data analytics in cybersecurity and fraud detection and is based on contributions of over 330 participants from 50 countries representing enterprises of all sizes across various industries such as IT, Services, Manufacturing, Finance, Retail or Public Sector.
The study delivers insights into the level of awareness and current approaches in information security and fraud detection in organizations around the world. It measures importance, status quo and future plans of Big Data security analytics initiatives, presents an overview of various opportunities, benefits and challenges relating to those initiatives, as well as outlines the range of technologies currently available to address those challenges.
Here are a few highlights of the study results:
Information Security and Big Data are recognized as the two most important IT trends
Over a half of the survey respondents consider Big Data technology one of the cornerstones of the Digital Transformation and consider protecting their digital assets from security risks and compliance violation extremely important. The public awareness of the potential of security analytics solutions is very impressive as well: almost 90% of the participants believe that these solutions will play a critical role in their corporate security infrastructures.
Current implementations are still lagging behind
Unfortunately, only a quarter of the respondents have already implemented big data security analytics measures. Even fewer, just 13% consider themselves best-in-class in this field, believing to have a better understanding of the technology than their competitors.
Benefits from big data security analytics are high
The overwhelming majority of the best-on-class participants believe that security analytics can bring substantial profits for their companies. In fact, over 70% of all respondents, even those who do not yet have a budget or a strategy for security analytics, already consider potential benefits from implementing such a solution to be high or at least moderate.
Best-in-class companies use a wide range of technologies
The companies with deep understanding of current information security trends and technologies clearly realize that only multi-layered and well-integrated security architectures are capable of resisting modern sophisticated cyber-attacks. They are deploying multiple security tools not just for threat protection, but for identity and access governance, strong authentication, SIEM and user behavior analytics as well. Unfortunately, many of the “laggards” are not even aware that some of these technologies exist.
Automated security controls are a key differentiator
Identifying a security incident is just the first step of a complex remediation process, which is still largely manual and requires a skilled security expert to carry it out properly using a large number of security tools. New generation security analytics solutions therefore place a strong emphasis on automation, which helps to reduce the skill gap and ideally let even a non-technical person initiate an automated incident response process. 98% of the best-in-class respondents are already aware of these developments and consider automation a key aspect of security solutions.
You’ll find a short summary of our findings in the handy infographic above. The complete study can be downloaded from our website in English or German. Thanks to the generosity of MicroStrategy, Inc., we are able to make it available free of charge.
Last time we’ve devoted an issue of our monthly newsletter to the Internet of Things was almost a year ago. Looking back now, we can already spot a number of significant changes in this field that happened during the year 2016. Perhaps, the most profound one is that the industry has finally gone past the “peak of inflated expectations” and started thinking less about making everything smart and connected and more about such down-to-earth things as return of investment, industry standards or security concerns.
An obvious consequence of this is the growing divide between the “consumer” and “industrial” segments of the IoT. Consumers are becoming increasingly disillusioned about the very concept of “smart home”, because the technology that has promised to make their lives easier simply does not live up to the expectations. Remember the guy who spent 11 hours fixing his Wi-Fi kettle? User experiences like that, combined with inconvenient mobile apps and a complete lack of security or privacy in those smart devices make more and more people want to go back to the good old “analog” teapots and light bulbs.
The industrial IoT segment, however, continues to grow steadily. With all the new companies rushing to the market, it’s quickly becoming crowded, which inevitably leads to mergers and acquisitions, forming partnerships and growing ecosystems – in other words, the IIoT market is finally showing the signs of maturity. By the way, let the term “industrial IoT” not confuse you: IIoT is not limited by just industrial applications; it is going to expand into various market sectors. In fact, we cannot even define a clear border between the “consumer" and “industrial” IoT just by looking at their applications: although your car is definitely a consumer device, many aspects of the technology that make it connected are undoubtedly industrial.
So nowadays, the divide between the consumer and industrial IoT is not between market segments and definitely not in hardware or protocols, but rather in the way those systems are handling the information they are collecting. IoT is no longer just about connecting things over the Internet, but about collecting, storing, analyzing and (last but not least) securing the data those things are producing. Because of the nature of information collected by smart consumer devices and industrial sensors is completely different, they require different technologies to manage them, to protect them from risks and to ensure their compliance.
Consumer IoT products like thermostats or fitness trackers tend to collect relatively small amounts of data, but this information is very personal and sensitive by nature. So, as soon as we sort out the basic security requirements and prevent hackers from building botnets from webcams, the biggest priority is compliance with data protection regulations. Industrial devices like sensors or controllers, on the other hand, usually produce massive streams of data, which must be collected, stored, processed and analyzed in real-time to provide better visibility into a manufacturing process, to make your car self-steering or to save a patient from hypoglycemic shock. These use cases, of course, demand completely different technologies, like cloud computing and Big Data analytics to efficiently handle such huge amounts of information quickly and reliably. And, of course, they face a completely different set of security risks.
As we once discussed in a webinar on industrial control system security, Operational Technology security experts have traditionally had completely different priorities with regards to cyber-security vs safety and process continuity, relying more on physical network isolation and proprietary protocols to protect their control and data acquisition systems. With IIoT, however, the situation changes completely – new smart industrial sensors are utilizing the same protocols or even the same hardware as consumer products. They are also communicating over the public Internet, wide open for potential hacking attacks. And although leaking sensor data probably does not constitute a serious security problem, manipulating the data or even the sensors themselves definitely does. By disrupting manufacturing process control, a hacking attack can not only lead to a loss of very real products, but also to equipment damage and even human casualties.
This is why, before embracing the new IIoT technologies for all the great business benefits they bring, OT specialists have to radically rethink their approaches towards cyber-security. The problem is further complicated by the fact that most industrial sensors do not have enough computing power to have any security functionality built into them – so existing OT security solutions developed for Windows-based SCADA environments won’t help much.
A popular approach nowadays is to use special IoT gateways to manage large numbers of devices centrally and to perform initial processing and protocol conversion before sending the collected data to the cloud. These gateways are the most obvious points to integrate security functions as well, providing services like identity and authentication, data integrity and threat protection. Many vendors are already taking the development of such secure gateways even further by offering complete platforms integrating device management and security with the possibility to run authorized third-party software and to integrate legacy devices into the IIoT.
However, traditional approaches like air gapping industrial networks by means of unidirectional gateways, deployment of endpoint protection solutions and, of course, real-time security analytics all have their place in a well-designed layered security infrastructure. After all, if done right, security is not a liability, but a valuable business opportunity.
The proverbial Computing Troika that KuppingerCole has been writing about for years does not show any signs of slowing down. The technological trio of Cloud, Mobile and Social computing, as well as their younger cousin, the Internet of Things, have profoundly changed the way our society works. Modern enterprises were quickly to adopt these technologies, which create great new business models, open up numerous communication paths to their partners and customers, and, last but not least, provide substantial cost savings. We are moving full speed ahead towards the Digital Era, and the future is full of promise. Or is it?
Unfortunately, the Digital Transformation does not only enable a whole range of business prospects, it also exposes the company’s most valuable assets to new security risks. Since those digital assets are nowadays often located somewhere in the cloud, with an increasing number of people and devices accessing them anywhere at any time, the traditional notion of security perimeter ceases to exist, and traditional security tools cannot keep up with the new sophisticated cyberattack methods.
In the recent years, the industry has come up with a new generation of security solutions, which KuppingerCole has dubbed “Real-Time Security Intelligence”. Thanks to a technological breakthrough that finally commoditized Big Data analytics technologies previously only affordable to large corporations, it became possible to collect, store, and analyze huge amounts of security data across multiple sources in real time. Various correlation algorithms have been implemented to find patterns in the data, as well as to detect anomalies, which in most cases indicate a certain kind of malicious activities.
Such security analytics solutions have been hailed (quite justifiably) by the media as the ultimate solution to most modern cybersecurity problems. Some even go as far as referring to these technologies as “machine learning” or even “artificial intelligence”. It should be noted however, that detecting patterns and anomalies in data sets has very little to do with true intelligence – in fact, if the “IQ level” of a traditional signature-based antivirus can be compared to that of an insect, then the correlation engine of a modern security analytics solution is about as “smart” as a frog catching flies.
Unfortunately, the strong artificial intelligence, comparable in skill and flexibility to a human, is still purely a subject of theoretical academic research. Its practical applications, however, are no longer a science fiction topic. To the contrary, these applied cognitive technologies have been actively developed for quite some time already, and the exponential growth of cloud computing has been a major boost for their further development in the recent years. Such technologies as computer vision, speech recognition, natural language processing or machine learning have found practical use in many industries, and cybersecurity is the most recent field where they promise to achieve a major breakthrough.
You see, the biggest problem information security is now facing has nothing to do with computers. In fact, the vast majority (over 80%) of security-related information in the world remains completely inaccessible to computers: it exists only in an unstructured form spread across tens of thousands of publications, conference presentations, forensic reports and other sources – spoken, written or visual.
Only a human can read and interpret those data sources, but we do not have nearly enough humans trained as security analysts to cope with the amount of new security information produced daily.
This is where Cognitive Security, a new practical application of existing cognitive technologies, comes into play. A cognitive security solution would be able to utilize natural language processing and machine learning methods to analyze both structured and unstructured security information the way humans do. It would be able to read texts (or even see pictures and listen to speeches) and not just recognize patterns within them, but be able to interpret and organize the information, explain its meaning, postulate hypotheses and provide reasoning based on evidence.
This may feel like science fiction to some, but the first practical cognitive security solutions are already appearing on the market. A major player and one of the pioneers in this field is undoubtedly IBM with their Watson platform. Originally created back in 2005 to compete with human players in the game of Jeopardy, over the years Watson has expanded significantly and found many practical applications in business analytics, government, legal and even healthcare services.
In May 2016, IBM has announced Watson for Cyber Security, a completely new field for their natural language processing and machine learning platform. However, IBM is definitely not a newcomer in cyber security. In fact, their own X-Force research library is being used as the primary source of security information to be fed into the specialized instance of the platform running in the cloud. Although the learning process is still in progress, the ultimate goal is to process all of those 80% of security intelligence data and make it available in structured form.
Of course, Watson for Cyber Security will never replace a human security analyst, but that is not its goal. First, making this “dark security data” accessible for automated processing by current security analytics solutions can greatly improve their efficiency as well as provide additional external threat intelligence. Second, cognitive security would provide analysts with powerful decision support tools, simplifying and speeding up their work and thus reducing the skills gap haunting the security industry today. In the future, the same cognitive technologies may be also applied to a company’s own digital assets to provide better analytics and information protection. Potentially, they may even make developing malware capable of evading detection too costly, thus turning the tide of the ongoing battle against cybercrime.
Last week, Microsoft has announced the general availability of the Azure Security Center – the company’s integrated solution for monitoring, threat detection and incident response for Azure cloud resources. Initially announced last year as a part of Microsoft’s new cross-company approach to information security, Azure Security Center has been available as a preview version since December 2015. According to Microsoft, the initial release has been used to monitor over 100 thousand cloud subscriptions and has identified over a million and a half of vulnerabilities and security threats.
So, what is it all about anyway? In short, Azure Security Center is a security intelligence service built directly into the Azure cloud platform.
- It provides security monitoring and event logging across Azure Cloud Services and Linux-based virtual machines, as well as various partner solutions;
- It enables centralized management of security policies for various resource groups, depending on business requirements or compliance regulations;
- It provides automated recommendations on addressing most common security problems, such as configuring network security groups, installing missing system updates or automatically deploying antimalware, web application firewall or other security tools in your cloud infrastructure;
- It analyzes and correlates various security events in near real-tome, fuses them with the latest threat intelligence from own and third party security intelligence feeds and generates prioritized security alerts when threats are detected;
- It provides a number of APIs, an interface to Microsoft Power BI and a SIEM connector to access and analyze security events from the Azure cloud using existing tools.
In other words, Microsoft Azure Security Center is a full-featured Real-Time Security Intelligence solution “in the cloud, for the cloud”. Sure, other SIEM and security analytics solutions provide integrations with cloud resources as well, but, being a native component of the Azure cloud infrastructure, Microsoft’s own solution has several obvious benefits, such as better integration with other Azure services, more efficient resource utilization and much lower deployment effort.
In fact, there is nothing to deploy at all – one can activate the Security Center directly in the Azure Portal. Moreover, basic security features and partner integrations are available for free; only advanced threat detection (like threat intelligence, behavior analysis, and anomaly detection) is priced per monitored resource.
With Azure Security Center now available for all Azure subscribers, offering new partner integrations (for example, vulnerability assessment by companies like Qualys) and new threat detection algorithms, there is really no reason why you should not immediately turn it on for your subscription. Even with the basic free functions, it provides a useful layer of security for the cloud infrastructure, but with the full range of behavior-based and anomaly-detection algorithms and a rich set of integration options, Azure Security Center can serve either as a center of your cloud security platform or as a means of extending your existing SIEM-based security operations center to the Azure cloud.
A couple weeks ago, just as we were busy running our European Identity & Cloud Conference, we’ve got news from IBM announcing the company’s foray into the area of Cognitive Security. And, although I’m yet to see their solution in action (closed beta starts this summer), I have to admit I rarely feel so excited about news from IT industry.
First of all, a quick reminder: the term “cognitive computing” broadly describes technologies based on machine learning and natural language processing that mimic the functions of human brains. Such systems are able to analyze vast amounts of unstructured data usually inaccessible to traditional computing platforms and not just search for answers, but create hypotheses, perform reasoning and support human decision making. This is really the closest we have come to Artificial Intelligence as seen in science fiction movies.
Although the exact definition of the term still causes much debate among scientists and marketing specialists around the world, cognitive computing solutions in the form of specialized hardware and software platforms have existed for quite some time, and the exponential growth of cloud computing has been a big boost for their further development. In fact, IBM has always been one of the leading players in this field with their Watson platform for natural language processing and machine learning.
IBM Watson was initially conceived in 2005 as a challenge to beat human players in the game of Jeopardy, and its eventual victory in a 2011 match is probably its best publicized achievement, but the platform has been used for a number of more practical applications for years, including business analytics, healthcare, legal and government services. The company continues to build an entire ecosystem around the platform, partnering with numerous companies to develop new solutions that depend on unstructured data analysis, understanding natural language and complex reasoning.
In the hindsight, the decision to utilize Watson’s cognitive capabilities for cyber security application seems completely reasonable. After all, with their QRadar Security Intelligence Platform, IBM is also one of the biggest players in this market, and expanding its scope to incorporate huge amounts of unstructured security intelligence makes a lot of sense. By tapping into various sources like analyst publications, conference presentations, forensic reports, blogs and so on, cognitive technology will provide security analysts with new powerful tools to support and augment their decision making. Providing access to the collective knowledge from tens of thousands sources constantly adapted and updated with the newest security intelligence, Watson for Cyber Security is supposed to solve the biggest problem IT security industry is currently facing – a dramatic lack of skilled workforce to cope with the ever growing number of security events.
Naturally, the primary source of knowledge for Watson is IBM’s own X-Force research library. However, the company is now teaming with multiple universities to expand the amount of collected security intelligence to feed into the specialized Watson instance running in the cloud. The ultimate goal is to unlock the estimated 80% of all security intelligence data, which is currently available only in an unstructured form.
It should be clear, of course, that this training process is still work in progress and by definition it will never end. There are also some issues to be solved, such as obvious concerns about privacy and data protection. Finally, it’s still not clear whether this new area of application will generate any substantial revenue for the company. But I’m very much looking forward to seeing Watson for Cyber Security in action!
By the way, I was somewhat disappointed to find out that Watson wasn’t actually named after Sherlock Holmes’ famous friend and assistant, but in fact after IBM’s first CEO Thomas Watson. Still, the parallels with “The Adventure of the Empty House” are too obvious to ignore :)
Yesterday at the RSA Conference, IBM has officially confirmed what’s already been a rumor for some time – the company is planning to acquire Resilient Systems for an undisclosed amount.
Resilient Systems, a relatively small privately held company based in Cambridge, MA, is well known for its Incident Response Platform, a leading solution for orchestrating and automating incident response processes. With the number of security breaches steadily growing, the focus within IT security industry is currently shifting more and more from detection and prevention towards managing the consequences of an attack that’s already happened. Such an incident response solution can provide a company with a predefined strategy for responding to various types of attacks, tailored to specific laws and industry regulations. It would then support the IT department at every step of the process, helping to get the affected infrastructure back online, address privacy concerns, solve organizational and legal issues and so on.
Despite being on the market for less than 5 years, Resilient Systems has already become a leading player in this segment, with their IRP solution being used by a variety of clients in all verticals, from mid-size businesses to Fortune 500 companies. Among other features, the product is known for its integration with multiple leading security solutions. In fact, Resilient Systems has been IBM’s partner for some time, integrating their product with IBM’s QRadar.
So, in the hindsight, the announcement doesn’t really come as a big surprise. For IBM Security, this acquisition means not just incorporating a leading incident response solution into their cyber security portfolio, but also hiring a 100 men strong team of security experts including the venerable Bruce Schneier, who’s currently serving as the Resilient Systems’ CTO. What’s in the deal for Resilient Systems is not as easy to say, since the financial details of the deal are not disclosed, but we can definitely be sure that gaining access to IBM’s vast partner network opens a lot of interesting business prospects.
By adding the new Incident Response capabilities to their existing QRadar security intelligence solution and X-Force Exchange threat intelligence platform, IBM is hoping to become the world’s first vendor with a fully integrated platform for security operations and response. In the same press release, the company has already announced their new IBM X-Force Incident Response Services.
With RSA kicking off this week, security experts from around the world are getting ready for a flurry of announcements from security vendors. Last Friday, it was Microsoft’s turn, and the company’s CISO Bret Arsenault has publicly announced some interesting news. The motto of the announcement is “Enterprise security for our mobile-first, cloud-first world” and it was all about unifying several key components, such as real-time predictive intelligence, correlating security data with threat intelligence data and, last but not least, collaboration with the industry and partners to provide a unified and agile security platform that can protect, detect and respond to the numerous security risks out there. After the initial announcement last November, the company is ready to deliver the first concrete products and services developed around this concept.
Perhaps the most important and yet the least surprising announced product is Microsoft Cloud App Security. Since the company has acquired a well-known cloud application security vendor Adallom, analysts have been waiting for Microsoft to integrate this technology into their products. With this product, Microsoft’s customers are promised to achieve the same level of visibility and control over their cloud applications as they are used to with their on-premise infrastructures. By combining a proven underlying technology from Adallom with a large number of integrations with popular cloud services like Box, ServiceNow, Salesforce and naturally Office 365, and by leveraging the threat intelligence collected from the world’s largest identity management service, Microsoft has all the chances to become an important player in the rapidly growing CASB (Cloud Access Security Broker) market, compensating for their relatively late coming to the market.
Cloud App Security will become generally available as a standalone product (or as a part of the Enterprise Mobility Suite) in April 2016. Much more interesting however is the announcement that this technology will also power new security management capabilities of Office 365 and will eventually be available to all existing Office 365 customers. With the release planned for Q3 2016, we should expect functions like advanced security alerts, cloud app discovery and permissions management for 3rd party cloud services integrated directly into the platform.
Another major announcement is the public preview of Azure Active Directory Identity Protection service. With this service, Microsoft is tapping into the vast amount of threat intelligence collected from their Azure Active Directory infrastructure and using machine learning algorithms to identify brute force attacks, leaked credentials and various types of anomalies in any applications working with Azure AD. Besides real-time detection, customers will be able to get remediation recommendations or even define their own risk-based policies for automated identity protection. In other words, what we have here is a classic example of a specialized Real Time Security Intelligence solution!
Other announced additions to Microsoft’s secure platform include, for example, Customer Lockbox feature for SharePoint Online and OneDrive for Business, which provides cloud service customers complete and explicit control over privileged access to their data by Microsoft’s support engineers. Combining technical and organizational measures, this feature is aimed at improving trust between Microsoft as a cloud service provider and its customers, which we at KuppingerCole see as one of the critical aspects of Cloud Provider Assurance.
Additionally, numerous improvements in security management and reporting have been announced in Azure Security Center. These include integrations with multiple third party security products (nextgen firewalls and web application firewalls) from vendors like Cisco, Check Point, CloudFlare, Imperva, etc.
To summarize it all, Microsoft is again showing that it’s able to consistently follow their long term strategy, working in parallel in several directions and keeping their new products and services synchronized and integrated into a holistic security platform. Of course, it would have been interesting to learn more about 3rd party integrations and partnerships, especially with various industry alliances. However, we can be sure that this wasn’t the last announcement from Microsoft, so we’re staying tuned for more.
After an “extended holiday season” (which for me included spending a vacation in Siberia and then desperately trying to get back into shape) it’s finally time to resume blogging. And the topic for today is the cloud platform for IoT services from AWS, which went out of beta in December. Ok, I know it’s been a month already, but better late than never, right?
As already mentioned earlier, the very definition of the Internet of Things is way too blanket and people tend to combine many different types of devices under this term. So, if your idea of the Internet of Things means controlling your thermostat or your car from your mobile phone, the new service from AWS is probably not what you need. If, however, your IoT includes thousands or even millions of sensors generating massive amounts of data which needs to be collected, processed by complex rules and finally stored somewhere, then look no further, especially if you already have your backend services in the AWS cloud.
In fact, with AWS being the largest cloud provider, it’s safe to assume that its backend services have already been used for quite a few IoT projects. However, until now they would have to rely on third-party middleware for connecting their “things” to AWS services. Now the company has closed the gap by offering their own managed platform for interacting with IoT devices and processing data collected from them. Typically for AWS, their solution follows the no-frills, no-nonsense approach, offering native integrations with their existing services, a rich set of SDKs and development tools and aggressive pricing. In addition, they are bringing in a number of hardware vendors with starter kits that can help quickly implement a prototype for your new IoT project. And, of course, with the amount of computing resources at hand, they can safely claim to be able to manage billions of devices and trillions of messages.
The main components of the new platform are the following:
The Device Gateway supports low-latency bi-directional communications between IoT devices and cloud backends. AWS provides support for both standard HTTP and much more resource-efficient MQTT messaging protocols, both secured by TLS. Strong authentication and fine-grained authorization are provided by familiar AWS IAM services, with a number of simplified APIs available.
The Device Registry keeps track of all devices currently or potentially connected to the AWS IoT infrastructure. It provides various management functions like support and maintenance or firmware distribution. Besides that, the registry maintains Device Shadows – virtual representations of IoT devices, which may be only intermittently connected to the Internet. This functionality allows cloud and mobile apps to access all devices using a universal API, masking all the underlying communication and connectivity issues.
The Rules Engine enables continuous processing of data sent by IoT devices. It supports a large number of rules for filtering and routing the data to AWS services like Lambda, DynamoDB or S3 for processing, analytics and storage. It can also apply various transformations on the fly, including math, string, crypto and other operations or even call external API endpoints.
A number of SDKs are provided including a C SDK for embedded systems, a node.js SDK for Linux, an Arduino library and mobile SDKs for iOS and Android. Combined with a number of “official” hardware kits available to play with, this ensures that developers can quickly start working on an IoT project of almost any kind.
Obviously, one has to mention that Amazon isn’t the first cloud provider to offer an IoT solution – Microsoft has announced their Azure IoT Suite earlier in 2015 and IBM has their own Internet of Things Foundation program. However, each vendor has a unique approach towards addressing various IoT integration issues. The new solution from AWS, with a strong focus on existing standard protocols and unique features like device shadows, not just looks compelling to existing AWS customers, but will definitely kickstart quite a few new large-scale IoT projects. On the Amazon cloud, of course.
With the amount of digital assets a modern company has to deal with growing exponentially, the need to access them any time from any place, across various devices and platforms has become a critical factor for business success. This does not include just the employees – to stay competitive, modern businesses must be increasingly connected to their business partners, suppliers, current and future customers and even smart devices (or things). New digital businesses therefore have to be agile and connected.
Unsurprisingly, the demand for solutions that provide strongly protected storage, fine-grained access control and secure sharing of sensitive digital information is extremely high nowadays, with vendors rushing to bring their various solutions to the market. Of course, no single information sharing solution can possibly address all different and often conflicting requirements of different organizations and industries, and the sheer number and diversity of such solutions is a strong indicator for this. Vendors may decide to support just certain types of storage or document formats, concentrate on solving a specific pain points of many companies like enabling mobile access, or design their solutions for specific verticals only.
Traditional approach to securing sensitive information is storing it in a secured repository on-premise or in the cloud. By combining strong encryption and customer managed encryption keys or in the most extreme cases even implementing Zero Knowledge Encryption principle, vendors are able to address even the strictest security and compliance requirements. However, as soon as a document leaves the repository, traditional solutions are no longer able to ensure its integrity or to prevent unauthorized access to it.
Information Rights Management (IRM) offers a completely different, holistic approach towards secure information sharing. Evolving from earlier Digital Rights Management technologies, the underlying principle behind IRM is data-centric security. Essentially, each document is wrapped in a tiny secured container and has its own access policy embedded directly in it. Each time an application needs to open, modify or otherwise access the document, it needs to validate user permissions with a central authority. If those permissions are changed or revoked, this will be immediately applied to the document regardless of its current location. The central IRM authority also maintains a complete audit trail of document accesses.
Thus, IRM is the only approach that can protect sensitive data at rest, in motion, and in use. In the post-firewall era, this approach is fundamentally more future-proof, flexible and secure than any combination of separate technologies addressing different stages of the information lifecycle. However, it has one fatal flaw: IRM only works without impeding productivity if your applications support it. Although IRM solutions have gone a long way from complicated on-premise solutions towards cloud-based completely managed services, their adoption rate is still quite low. Probably the biggest reason for that is lack of interoperability between different IRM implementations, but arguably more harmful is the lack of general awareness that such solutions even exist! However, recently the situation has changed, with several notable vendors increasing efforts in marketing their IRM-based solutions.
One of the pioneers and certainly the largest such vendor is Microsoft. With the launch of their cloud-based Azure Rights Management services in 2014, Microsoft finally made their IRM solution affordable not just for large enterprises. Naturally, Microsoft’s IRM is natively supported by all Microsoft Office document formats and applications. PDF documents, images or text files are natively supported as well, and generic file encapsulation into a special container format is available for all other document types. Ease of deployment, flexibility and support across various device platforms, on-premise and cloud services make Azure RMS the most comprehensive IRM solution in the market today.
However, other vendors are able to compete in this field quite successfully as well either by adding IRM functionality into their existing platforms or by concentrating on delivering more secure, more comprehensive or even more convenient solutions to address specific customer needs.
A notable example of the former is Intralinks. In 2014, the company has acquired docTrackr, a French vendor with an innovative plugin-free IRM technology. By integrating docTrackr into their secure enterprise collaboration platform VIA, Intralinks is now able to offer seamless document protection and policy management to their existing customers. Another interesting solution is Seclore FileSecure, which provides a universal storage- and transport-neutral IRM extension for existing document repositories.
Among the vendors that offer their own IRM implementations one can name Covertix, which offers a broad portfolio of data protection solutions with a focus on strong encryption and comprehensive access control across multiple platforms and storage services. On the other end of the spectrum on can find vendors like Prot-On, which focus more on ease of use and seamless experience, providing their own EU-based cloud service to address local privacy regulations.
For more in-depth information about leading vendors and products in the file sharing and collaboration market please refer to KuppingerCole’s Leadership Compass on Secure Information Sharing.
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