Monday, April 24, 2023

Why today’s hybrid IT complexity makes 'as a service' security essential

Transcript of a discussion on why more automation, integration, and acquiring security services “as a service” are in hot demand amid rapidly growing IT security costs and the added complexity of protecting distributed workforces.

Listen to the podcast. Find it on iTunesDownload the transcript. Sponsor: Bitdefender.


Dana Gardner: Welcome to the next edition of the BriefingsDirect podcast series. I’m Dana Gardner, Principal Analyst at Interarbor Solutions, your host and moderator.



Amid rapidly growing IT security costs and the added complexity of distributed workforces, the challenges facing IT services providers are clearly outrunning past practices. That’s why more automation, integration, and acquiring security “as a service” are in hot demand.


Stay with us now as the next BriefingsDirect security innovations discussion examines how Heartland Business Systems is seeking new ways and new partners to ensure that security incidents are kept in check across a variety of hybrid IT services and scenarios.


Here to share his story of increasingly embracing security-as-a-service is our guest, Jason Nuss, Vice President of Cloud Services at Heartland Business Systems (HBS) in Little Chute, Wisconsin. Welcome, Jason.

Jason Nuss: Dana, thanks for having me.


Gardner: Jason, what are some of the top trends driving the need to do things differently when it comes to risk management and endpoint security?


Nuss: Endpoint security is getting more important and broader every day. Cyber insurance definitely has had a huge influence over the last several years. I can remember when cyber insurance applications were just a couple of questions. Now, in some cases, they’re a dozen pages long.


That’s urging more requirements to tighten up security practices. At the same time, the hackers are getting smarter, and they’re moving to new techniques. You know, we’re starting to see more extortion as opposed to just encryption scams, which really has a much greater effect on not only on a specific customer, but sometimes that customer’s clients as well.


During the last few years of the pandemic, we’ve also seen a migration to a more mobile workforce. Some of the companies we work with have closed their office doors. They aren’t going back to physical offices, which has brought in other challenges when it comes to making sure their environments are secure.


Gardner: And how about the current hybrid IT environment? How is that forcing you to do things differently?


Data is everywhere, but is it secure?


Nuss: Data is now everywhere -- as is your staff. We used to be able to secure inside of your walls and you didn’t have to worry so much about external trends. But now we have people working from home and accessing home networks, which makes those endpoints even more vulnerable to more security threats than the ones behind your corporate firewall.


You also have more cloud data and cloud services applications. You need to make sure those are secure as well, which plays a huge new factor. One of the common misconceptions we see is that everything from the cloud is perfect.


A lot of people think that cloud-based software-as-a-service (SaaS) applications include everything and that they are fully secure and fully redundant. But that’s just not the case. People need to take more time to look at the services that we’re adopting and make sure the providers are on the up-and-up. Do they have all the proper security tools, backups, and disaster recovery? Should they have an outage, how will that impact our businesses as well?


Gardner: Right, we have to evaluate the security robustness, if you will, of our entire technology supply chains.


Nuss: Absolutely.


Gardner: How about rising costs, such as for labor? How is that affecting your ability to deliver security effectively?


Nuss: Security costs over the last several years have gone up quite a bit. I often tell customers that security costs have gone up 500 to 600 percent from what they were five years ago.


I’ve been around this industry almost 30 years now. Before, you only had to worry about an antivirus product and a modem for connectivity to the Internet. Then it moved into buying firewalls. But now you have things like endpoint detection and response (EDR)managed detection and response (MDR), and extended detection and response (XDR).


It’s very confusing. You have security information management (SIM)security operations centers (SOCs)privileged access management (PAM), and all these other new technologies that make the landscape very, very cloudy. No pun intended.

But you know, sometimes we have to right the ship for the customer to make sure that we’re looking at security from a proper rollout perspective. You’re starting with the most critical things, whether it be a backup or multi-factor authentication or endpoint security. And then maybe layering on some of the additional services. But it doesn’t make sense for our customers to start out with penetration testing if they haven’t secured their environment ahead of time. We’re going to find out holes, right?


Gardner: And why is SaaS and more automation generally attractive to folks like you as you’re specifying the next generation of security?

Expertise at scale


Nuss: Expertise at scale is very important -- and often overlooked. Just making sure you have a SOC, and maybe if it’s a guy or two, that is not good enough. You need to be able to react appropriately.


So having a larger staff, having a knowledge base behind that, is very important in solving the protection issues -- or even identifying the security issues quickly. Automation is critical to that. When you’re ingesting hundreds of thousands -- or millions -- of logs, you need to be able to comb through that data really quickly. So, automating that is critical. You’re starting to see more artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) take over in that space. A lot of the more recent products are using those technologies to identify threats before an analyst would have caught them manually.


Gardner: As we mentioned before, we have to be concerned about our suppliers and partners --- perhaps more than ever. They can come under attack as well. How has that changed how you look at your suppliers?


Nuss: As far as our suppliers go, we’ve started to take a deeper look at the supply chain completely. There are a lot of smaller companies coming out with new technologies. As we look to vet things, not only are we betting on functionality, but we’re also vetting on security elements.

Just turning on an API isn't always a good thing. You want to make sure you're minimizing the impact should they have a breach and that it does not impact you as well. You have to look over the vendors and make sure they follow the best practices.

Just recently, we were looking at a product that would integrate into our customer resource management (CRM) tool to do better data mining out of Microsoft 365, Exchange, and Outlook. And, you know, we came to find out that, hey, that data is being stored overseas. They’re also injecting a bunch of email messages, and so we had concerns around those tools.


Just turning on an application programming interface (API) isn’t always a good thing. You want to make sure you’re minimizing the impact should they have a breach and that it does not impact you as well. You have to look over the vendors and make sure that they’re following best practices. If they’re not, I think it’s good to call them out and let them know. Such as, “Look, you don’t need access to all of these tables for the pieces that you’re trying to access. Let’s minimize the blast radius should you be compromised and so as to not affect us as well.”


Gardner: So, it’s services-subscriber beware, right?


Nuss: Absolutely. You know, with some of the other things that are playing into it as well, with the mobile workforce, you have to secure the edge and make sure you have good endpoint controls, firewalls, and other components.


That was one of the things where Bitdefender rose above the rest for us. They were able to store those things, looking at other cloud storage providers. You know, you also see shadow IT out there. I cringe when I hear people that don’t have corporate policy around cloud storage and where they’re putting up data using things such as Dropbox or Microsoft OneDrive. It’s okay to use those, but make sure you have a governance policy around them, such as a backup strategy and how you’re going to secure that data.


Gardner: We have seen a lot of cloud services use sprawl and ungoverned use, for sure. Eventually, you have to gain maturity about how you do that.


Let’s hear about Heartland Business Systems (HBS). Tell us about your company. What you do, and what do you think distinguishes you from other managed service providers (MSPs)?


Widespread, yet local service


Nuss: HBS is based in the Upper Midwest, we’re just south of Green Bay, Wisconsin. We’re now up to about 12 locations throughout Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Missouri, Arkansas, and Arizona. We have been around since the 1990s, with around 650 total employees and about 350 technical service professionals across many specializations.


People often ask what sets us apart from the other guys in the industry. I think there are a couple of things. We have both breadth and scale. We also believe very heavily on having in-market expertise where we have a physical presence. We try to have expertise so that when our teams are going out on-site, we deliver a quality experience. We’re not always relying on engineers from the center of our company, so to speak, to roll that out.


Our expertise is widespread. So, we not only do the normal networking- and systems-type work -- with a robust Microsoft practice; we’re a gold partner in 16 of 18 different competencies -- we also have an enterprise security and risk management team. [They can also help when] you’re doing compliance audits, vulnerability assessments, and penetration testing. Just in December, we purchased another company, Pratum, that has a SOC-as-a-service offering. It will be interesting to see how that plays into our security offerings over the coming months.

Gardner: When you talk about breadth and scale, that sounds like you have to scale not just up but down and sideways, if you will. That means servicing a lot of different types of organizations across a lot of different industries. So how do you serve that variety? How do you scale up and down and remain efficient?


Nuss: It’s sometimes difficult to address all the different markets. Our total market is pretty much comprised equally and in thirds: of small-and-medium business (SMB), medium-to-large enterprises, and then the government and education spaces.

Sometimes those needs are very different. You have to have offerings that address the needs that they all want. In the SMB space, they typically don’t have security professionals, so we end up being the security professionals for them.


In the enterprise space, a lot of times it’s more of a co-managed solution set. You have to have solutions that address the needs of each of those different classes. For us, we have separate engineering teams in a lot of those spaces, where they focus on specific technology stacks for the specific market segment. They become more expert there, with a SMB-type engineering staff as well as an enterprise engineering staff. They focus on different manufacturers, in some cases, and more elaborate technology at the higher end of the spectrum.


Gardner: With a sizable public-sector business, and I have to assume quite a bit in education and schools, how is that a challenge for security?


Nuss: The biggest challenge in the public sector is often budget. A lot of times it is so focused on hardware migrations – the replacing of endpoints at the desktop, networking, or servers – that security gets overlooked, even though it’s more and more important.

On the IT side, we look at building best practices around policy. Everything starts with that policy, and then you can measure against that policy as you move forward. 

Also, for them, they’re trying to solve physical security concerns in addition to IT security. So, we work with customers on things like video surveillance systems, ID badges, and access control systems.


On the IT security side, we look at building best practices around policy. Everything starts with that policy, and then you can measure against that policy as you move forward. They are also moving to devices that may have less susceptibility, such as Chromebooks where they’re not storing data locally. They’re storing it up in the cloud so they can better protect those cloud assets. They are then less worried about the endpoints, but you definitely have to begin with that comprehensive policy and then obtain the tool sets that goes with it.


Gardner: Is there a positive pay back when you automate more, go policy-driven, and use cloud and multi-tenancy to their full effects?


Multi-tenancy critical in the cloud


Nuss: Yes. For us, multi-tenancy is absolutely critical. I run our cloud services division, our data centers. We have two data centers. As we looked to security tools like endpoint security, it was absolutely critical that these things were multi-tenant. We had products before we found Bitdefender to support 20,000 endpoints through a single management console. To roll out that type of scale, you have to have consistency. There are a lot of great security tools in the marketplace, but if they don’t play into your operational processes at scale, they really don’t do you any good.


As we evaluated for endpoint security, and EDR specifically, we needed to make sure that number one, it was a good product. We looked at MITRE ATT&CK trends and things like that to see where they were playing within the Mitre framework. But number two is how did it work into our processes and into our tool sets?


Could I have a global policy that I could roll out to everyone, so they knew that I had consistency? It’s inefficient for me to go touch 600 different customers within that portal to make one change. I need to make it at a global level and have that be inherited down the chain. At the same time, we have more enterprise customers who want control of those policies themselves. We were looking for a tool that would allow us to give them the access rights to customize the policy or manage their portal as they saw fit. So, we really like those aspects of it specifically.


Gardner: When you try all kinds of new services and products, one of the challenges in security is the sprawl of having so many tools. What do you look for when you’re evaluating your security suppliers and services when it comes to how well they integrate services, in how well they combine tools and meet more requirements, so that you don’t have to?


Tools and services work well with others


Nuss: A lot of times we’re looking for integration. We’re a ConnectWise shop end-to-end so we’d like solutions that integrate into that tool set. Whether it be pushing the software out through ConnectWise Automate and those kinds of deployment tools, or whether it’s alerting within the tool set to let us know that there’s been a ticket that’s been created, or better yet, even closing out that ticket once it’s been remediated.


Those capabilities are very important to us. You can’t just use email anymore to notify people of issues that arise. It just becomes noise and we’ve consulted with customers where they have things like monitoring solutions.


You can’t have a better example than we had when a city government here locally had a ransomware attack. They had security tools that actually notified them the day before that the hacker was in the system, but because of all the noise, they didn’t have the alerts tuned enough and the processes well defined enough so that they missed the alert. The next day, they were hit with ransomware and encrypted across the entire environment. So, you know, lesson learned -- it’s not just about having the tools to block attacks. It’s also about having the processes in place to react when the chips are down, right?


Gardner: Yes, and it integrates into your processes as you pointed out in your help desk or SOC and your other systems that are already in place. You have to take advantage of what you put in when it comes to fast remediation, fast alerts, and email just doesn’t cut it.

Okay, let’s think about reporting and data and understanding what’s going on. It’s about having information to the right in the right ways. What do you look for when it comes to reports for that that single view, or one throat to choke, if you will?


Nuss: We need to be notified of the alert immediately. We’ve created mechanisms that if there is a critical alert, it’s sending a page out to people that are on call and setting off other alarm bells for us to react very quickly.


From our SOC services perspective, we outsource much of our MDR services. So, we create workflows with those vendors that are overseeing some of those security aspects on who should they call first, and how that escalates through our system so we make sure that those can be addressed quickly.

From our SOC services perspective, we outsource much of our MDR services. We create workflows with those vendors that are overseeing some of those security aspects on who should they call first and how that escalates through our system so they can be addressed quickly.

I tell this story to a lot of our prospects. It was the Friday before Fourth of July weekend, and I got a call from one of the SOC analysts telling us that we had someone in one of our client’s environments They were making some lateral movements and they were pretty convinced it was a hacker.


Had that gone on for another three days, who knows how they would be? Now, the good news to the story is it wasn’t actually a hacker. They were having a penetration test done within their environment over the weekend -- so no harm, no foul there. But, you know, had that been somebody that was in there, you hate to even guess how far they could have gotten throughout the environment, how pervasive that could have been without having someone notified quickly.


Many of our clients have seen that in one of their portals. Had they gone in there, they might have seen it in an email when they got to it, maybe the next week when they got back from vacation. But when it comes to security time is money.


Gardner: Let’s look at your security solutions choices. How was your journey in terms of solving these issues?


Nuss: There are two aspects to it. As we looked at endpoint security, we spent more than a year analyzing different platforms. We looked at all of the major vendors out there, the Microsoft Sentinels, the CrowdStrikes, the Sophos, you name it -- we looked at all of them. We narrowed them down from their “based-on” capabilities, based on some of the tools set integrations, based on their go-to market strategies, some competitive natures. Then we went in and started doing field trial tests, so we put them in place. We would kick the tires, tested integrated to our tools, to make sure those workflows came through, and then we moved forward from there, rolling that into our offerings.


It’s a pretty detailed process -- one that was probably more detailed than many of them out there. That’s a big aspect of making sure you’re not just jumping in and saying, “Well, this one’s rated really well. Let’s just take that and move forward with it.”


One of the competitors in that particular space that we looked at -- we really liked the product, but we also looked at financial capabilities of the company. You know, they should be profitable. They shouldn’t be hemorrhaging cash left and right. You need to make sure that they’re going to be in there for the long haul. Having been in the IT space for 30 years now, we’ve seen a lot of great vendors come and go. And so that’s almost as important -- their financial viability -- as is the technology.


Gardner: How much further do you have to go to get to where you need to be?


Operational maturity for success


Nuss: It’s always a constant evolution. With security changing so fast, we try to look at what is  integrating more openly. Who has APIs to integrate into other tools?


Talking about Bitdefender, with this recent acquisition that we have had, they do a lot with Microsoft Azure Sentinel, so we’re working on an integration into Azure Sentinel so that we can have cross-platform capabilities and a layered approach.


We want to make sure the tools that we have can integrate with the overall platform so that we can pick and choose the right platform to deploy to our customers. The other piece of it is you really have to work closely with the customers to make sure they have proper operational maturity levels.


I look to five different levels of operational maturity, and you should move up and to the right in the levels. You should take that same approach with security. Make sure you’re starting with the core components to make sure that you have the big building blocks there first -- such as endpoint security, firewalls, advanced threat protection, on-site and off-site backup, and policy management -- before you move to some of the next-generation, such as SaaS technology, zero-touch network access, zero trust at the endpoint level, and DNS protection. You can go on and on and on.

Security awareness training is also key. For example, our enterprise security and risk management teams came up with a top 10 list that we present as a place to begin. And then we start to talk about where to go as your budget allows.


The other big thing is to get out in front of the process from a budgeting perspective with your clients. I tell them that security costs are probably five times what they were just five years ago, but we don’t necessarily see that in the budget. A lot of times, IT has a real struggle relaying the value of that to the business leadership.

Get out in front of the process from a budgeting perspective with your clients. Security costs are probably five times what they were just five years ago, but we don't necessarily see that in the budgets. IT has a struggle relaying that value to their business leadership.

I like to tell stories and relate things back to what I’ve seen in the past. For example, I was at a trade show and one of the security analysts was telling us about a letter he received the day before from one of his MSP clients. It was basically an extortion letter from a cyber attacker who said, “We’ve been in your business for the last 30 days. We have 300GB your files. Here’s the list of files we have. You can pick any three, and we’ll send a copy of the files just to prove that we have them.”


This was purely financial: “Here’s how much money we want. And by the way, if you don’t pay us, we’re going to start calling every one of your competitors and every one of your customers to tell that we have your data and then try to extort them in the same fashion.”


You tell that story to a business owner and it almost makes you sick. Those types of things are happening out there every day. A lot of times, I don’t think they’re very well publicized because people don’t want to know who has been hacked. But it’s real, and they need to react to it and take it seriously. By telling those stories, or if they know somebody who has been hit up for ransomware or extortion, whatever it may be, those stories make a big difference, too.


Gardner: On measuring that value, what are your most important key performance indicators (KPIs) to demonstrate to your leadership that you’re spending your money properly and wisely? When it comes to things like EDR and what Bitdefender is providing for you, how do you measure the value?


Nuss: That’s always a tough question. At the end of the day, we look at where we see threats and infections and the reactive support needs. We have an incidence response team here to help clients. And we try and track what’s happening there -- how many alerts, remediations, and things that are fixed on a monthly basis to prove value.


From an MSP perspective, we send out reports to our clients showing all the security events that we’ve seen. These are the things that have been blocked to make sure that they understand the value that’s there. Otherwise, the value is out-of-sight, out-of-mind, right? If they don’t have a problem, they don’t necessarily think that any problems ever existed because you’re blocking something. You’re doing a good thing, but they don’t always realize that.


Gardner: Of course, not being hacked or ransomed or extorted also factors pretty high up there.


Nuss: Yes, for sure.


Gardner: Okay, let’s look to the future. What comes next? What are you looking to do in the next three years?


Take down tool sprawl


Nuss: Some of the big things that we’ll look at include which tools are working better together and where we can consolidate reporting. So, combating tool sprawl. It’s a real problem out there, trying to bring reporting from the different tools together so we can show the overall, cohesive strategy. That is going to be more and more important.


We want to work with vendors that are really open. I would be surprised if we don’t see more of the security vendors adopt standards where they’re sharing things in a more cohesive fashion. Whether it’s endpoint security, DNS protection, or zero trust – ways that security threats can be more consistently delivered to reporting mechanisms to develop better overall dashboards.


You’ll start to see more API integrations, where you have reporting tools that now are able to work with vendors to block things. So maybe your endpoint security is integrated into your SOC services. You could, at the click of the button, have a disconnect or block of a particular event automatically -- or even manually -- when they see those issues without necessarily having to move into different tools.


That’s where you’ll see the automation components come in. And then they’ll start to create workflows that work with that, so if an event is triggered, they can use that to run scripts against things to start to shut things down or just connect them or remediate at inception to prevent it spreading. That’s where I think things will be headed more and more.


Gardner: I’m afraid we’ll have to leave it there. You have been listening to a sponsored BriefingsDirect discussion on how IT services providers are moving beyond past practices to seek out more automation, integration, and acquiring modern security solutions as a service.


And we’ve learned how Heartland Business Systems is seeking new ways and new partners to assure that security incidents are kept in check across a variety of hybrid IT services and scenarios.

So please join me now in thanking our guest, Jason Nuss, Vice-President of Cloud Services at Heartland Business Systems in Little Chute, Wisconsin. Thank you so much, Jason.


Nuss: Thanks for having me, Dana.


Gardner: I’m Dana Gardner, Principal Analyst at Interarbor Solutions, your host and moderator for this ongoing series of BriefingsDirect discussions. A big thank you to our sponsor, Bitdefender, for supporting these presentations.


Also, a big thank you to our audience for joining us. Please pass this on to your IT and security communities, and do come back next time.


Listen to the podcast. Find it on iTunesDownload the transcript. Sponsor: Bitdefender.


Transcript of a discussion on why more automation, integration, and acquiring security services “as a service” are in hot demand amid rapidly growing IT security costs and the added complexity of protecting distributed workforces. Copyright Interarbor Solutions, LLC, 2005-2023. All rights reserved.


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