The rise and rise of the “as-a-service” (XaaS)

I recently blogged about Unified Communications as a Service (UCaaS) and how its cloud-based communications and collaboration tools can help companies be more productive. The “as-a-service” (XaaS) approach is really at the heart of so much business transformation at the moment and it is fair to say that it is becoming a strategy in its own right. It is creating a whole new paradigm for customers and service providers.

XaaS: what’s new?

In the past we typically used to ship or download physical products as we needed them, but the introduction of cloud computing as a heavyweight enabler has given rise to the XaaS model. The XaaS approach brings with it an ongoing relationship between customer and supplier, in which there is constant communication, regular status updates and a genuine two-way, real-time exchange of information.

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This makes XaaS an attractive approach for customers, they really seem to be buying into it – the managed service nature of the relationship means they have to commit less money up front while enjoying less risk and still keeping up-to-date with the very latest technologies and product developments. Plus companies can also scale up or down, depending on their needs at a given moment in time – another important influencer on costs and another of those flexibility enhancers.

how mobile is helping power the XaaS revolution

So in the same way that the cloud itself has been a disruptive development for conventional IT’s ways of getting things done, so the as-a-service model is also changing the game. It is fair to say that the cloud is effectively the next step in the evolution of the internet, and the cloud is the conduit through which everything will in future be delivered as a service.

The XaaS model is changing everything in that it is both taking over applications and also taking over service delivery channels and basically cutting out the traditional middle man. With mobility becoming the new norm and the standard way of doing things, people can access the services and applications they want no matter where they are. Mobility, mobile device proliferation and the shift to faster mobile broadband connectivity are all helping to accelerate the process.

XaaS going mainstream

Software as a Service (SaaS) was arguably the first area in which the cloud delivery XaaS model found its way into the commercial mainstream, and the sector has gained significant momentum since then. Gartner predicts that the worldwide SaaS market will exceed $22 billion in 2015, almost double its value in 2011.

The benefits that SaaS brings to companies are true of all the other XaaS alternatives, such as Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), Platform as a Service (PaaS), Storage as a Service, Security as a Service, UCaaS and others. The big data revolution is seeing more organizations look into the possibilities offered by storage as a service – companies are creating more internal and external communications data, more video and so on, which means that storing data securely becomes an increasingly significant legal and compliance issue.

So by outsourcing these service provisions to a qualified expert partner, organizations immediately get lower “Total Cost of Ownership” (TCO) than with traditional, on-premises solutions. Deployment of services and applications is faster and easier which means that companies can reduce OPEX and get new offerings and services to market faster. The initial CAPEX is lower, IT support expenditure is reduced through the XaaS model and scalability is built-in to the proposition. Design obsolescence is also a thing of the past under an XaaS model. So it becomes another major disruptor for suppliers.

Overall people are switching on to the XaaS model because it takes the TCO and converts it from being a concern into something which is more controllable, and which has agreed service levels. Traditionally, IT initiatives were known for suffering from project overruns, where companies didn’t know what they would get at the end of a process which took longer than intended and which of course cost more. Those types of incidents were what cost CIOs their jobs. The XaaS approach removes this risk and while there can be a worry about having less control over the whole, companies have come round to seeing the benefits as outweighing this.

but the network remains key

So while the benefits and reduced risks of the XaaS model are clear, the network backbone is what powers the proposition forward. Cloud services all rely on a robust network to give the reliability that services need and that end-users expect, so as companies make the shift to the XaaS paradigm, they must always think about their networks too. If reliable, high speed connectivity is not available then the user experience declines and the proposition weakens.

innovation acceleration

Perhaps the real proof point of the XaaS model is that it genuinely accelerates innovation. No customer likes deploying something and then finding that a new version of the software, hardware or whatever has come along a few months later and they are already behind the curve. Under the XaaS approach, innovation can occur in real-time, customer feedback can be gathered and acted on immediately, organizations – and their own customer offerings – are able to stay at the cutting edge with minimal effort.

This is where XaaS distinguishes itself from the traditional thinkers who still believe that it’s better to build things themselves – the traditionalists will end up spending a lot more money to be locked into something that could pretty soon be out of date. Open integration environments that encourage application development are flourishing. And through this kind of innovation the smart providers of today are set to kill off the old paradigm by opensourcing this ongoing innovation and new ideas.

This new paradigm, now has a number of competing labels emerging. We will see with increasing frequency XaaS from our industry, no matter which label the industry adopts, the ‘Everything as a Service’ or ‘Anything as a Service’ label. One thing is guaranteed, we will continue to see the rise and rise of the “Everything-as-a-Service” /  “Anything-as-a-Service” (XaaS) model.

Unified Communications as a Service – the third way?

In my last blog post I wrote about how Technology can be used by ‘disruptors’ to change the competitive landscape and challenge long established segment leaders. In this piece I would like to explore a related technology that can be leveraged to disrupt the current landscape and one that I think is a reality now – Unified Communications as a Service (UCaaS).

UNIFIED COMMUNICATIONS YOU SAID?

The reason I call it a disruptor is that UCaaS is another specific application that is moving into the cloud and having a major impact on the way companies collaborate and communicate.

So what is UC? Unified Communications is an approach to business communication that groups together all the various tools under one umbrella and connects them up, making it easier for company team members to stay in touch. The UC suite typically includes all the communication apps you would expect to find in an average office, including the likes of

  1. voice calling
  2. video conferencing
  3. web conferencing
  4. and instant messenger (IM)

UC is about flexibility. Workers are able to be more productive and effective because they can choose the communication mechanism that works best for them at that time – such as taking a call on a landline, smartphone or tablet device. Bringing all of these ways of communicating together in an integrated format is what UC is all about.

challenges along the way

So UC can genuinely help organizations to see positive impacts on their productivity, worker effectiveness and even staff morale thanks to them being able to do their work more on their own terms. Many companies have attempted to raise productivity through UC and increased collaboration, and different organizations have had varying degrees of success with it.

There are challenges involved however – with the biggest expense being CAPEX, while integration and interoperability can also present problems. Companies must choose whether they want to roll UC out and manage the technology, training and risks themselves or whether they would rather outsource it – which may still require a significant investment upfront for the CAPEX which must be paid up front. It’s a balancing act, and one that causes many companies quite a degree of soul-searching.

“as a service” – the third way

There is a new paradigm that is a reality today and that is Unified Communications as a Service(UCaaS). The cloud continues to change the way that companies work, and it enables us to be more flexible in how we do things. In relation to UC, it means that companies can, rather than having that big initial CAPEX or big PBX, actually use a cloud-hosted service that gives all the benefits and control of an on-premise service. This is a potentially huge benefit for many companies.

Put simply, UCaaS makes Unified Communications and collaboration tools more affordable for all – vital at a time when companies need to reduce costs wherever possible. If you’re looking to manage costs then moving to an OPEX model is very attractive – and UCaaS also means smart outsourcing too. Working with an external partner means having a service level agreement (SLA) in place which covers you in unforeseen circumstances – when many companies have only one or two people responsible for their UC, who could be away on vacation or sick, this kind of safety net is a real advantage.

A further benefit of UCaaS is that it can offer event-based billing as well, meaning companies can offer support at times of greatly increased usage – such as delegates and staff collaborating around an annual conference, for example. The flexibility of UCaaS allows you to offer tools like video conferencing or Web conferencing which you might not otherwise need through the rest of the year.

Cloud – the enabler

One of the other advantages that the Cloud delivers is that of managing transitions of technology, again helping companies to reduce costs. By basing UC tools in the Cloud you don’t need to manage expensive upgrade cycles and you’re able to enjoy all the latest new features and versions as they become available.

What this also means is that companies can better manage the transitions of business models too – relocations, mergers, acquisitions and so on, any big changes to operational routines are more easily supported thanks to the agility of UCaaS. Take an example like mining companies which move operations around to where the next project demand is – starting up and shutting down projects is far easier in the Cloud.

Conclusion

These ideas have been around for quite a while now really, but only now are the service catalogues offering them come to market to make UCaaS a reality. The technology has caught up, meaning that companies can enjoy multi-tenanted Cloud offerings which allow more than one user on a box now. Similarly virtual machines can be had today with a compelling cost versus service proposition. It’s my belief that we are going to being seeing a big shift of people from on-premise UC suites to the cloud version, and adoption of the UC tools themselves is going to continue rising too.

At the end of the day, what UCaaS is about is

  • managing risk
  • cutting costs
  • and increasing collaboration.

By outsourcing your UC needs to a service provider who is an expert in that area you reduce CAPEX risks and the need for costly, long IT equipment recycle periods. You’re not putting all your UC eggs in one basket and get to enjoy the flexibility and agility that comes with the “as a Service” strategy.

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Six tips for mobile device management security

There has been a lot of discussion this year about the increasing influx of consumer devices being used for both professional and personal purposes. Many organisations are feeling a little overwhelmed as they try to work out appropriate security levels and device management boundaries. When you take into consideration all the platform and application updates chewing through corporate bandwidth, plus the potential for rogue applications and malware to gain illicit access to company data, there are many headaches for security managers to deal with.

Here are six tips to help get the efficient and secure management of mobile devices under control:

1. Have a strong mobile policy

This may seem like an obvious tip, but there is often a clear disconnect between employees and employers’ expectations of how consumer devices will be used in the enterprise. Research from IDC found that not only were workers using their devices at twice the rate, they also tended to think employers were far more permissive of the use of consumer devices than they actually were. It is therefore very important to have a mobile use policy clearly defined to avoid these kinds of misunderstandings.

A mobile usage policy is a framework that defines who the users are and what devices, platforms and applications they can and can’t use. Enterprises must clearly define policies around reimbursement for services and what applications users can access via personal devices, along with clear guidance on who controls the data on devices.

2. Create an inventory of assets

How can you be assured of the security of employees’ mobile devices if you don’t know how many are out there and what they are? Implementing a robust and regularly updated inventory management system is a vital part of any mobile device management system. While many businesses do have an inventory of fixed and wireless assets, the majority of them are not updated and validated on a regular basis, leading to the potential for security issues to slip through the cracks via unknown devices or inappropriate usage. Businesses with accurate inventories have much clearer insight into their telecommunication environments and as such, more reliable information on which to base policy decisions.

3. Ensure proper configuration of devices

The sheer number of different devices and platforms out there can make the configuration of devices a challenging process. Factor in entry level handsets, smartphones, tablets with different operating systems and employees working in numerous different locations and the issue becomes even more complex. However, if a device is enrolled with a mobile device management server, a configuration profile defined and managed by IT admin can be implemented, enabling the device to interact with enterprise systems. An appropriate level of encryption can also be added to any commands coming from the server to ensure that settings cannot be altered without proper authorisation.

4. Implement appropriate security

Despite the influx of consumer devices into the workplace, many organisations haven’t implemented stronger security controls in response, leaving them at risk of security breaches or loss of sensitive data. Data encryption is a powerful piece of the mobile security puzzle and yet many businesses do not use it on a regular basis. In addition to implementing data encryption, enterprises need to inform workers about the risks of failing to comply with security protocols – there is a good chance that they are unaware of the risks associated with using their personal devices for professional purposes.

5. Regulate application protocols

Taking into consideration that there are thousands upon thousands of mobile applications out there, strong protocols need to be instituted for the deployment of any new applications and the management of existing applications. Malware is steadily creeping into the app world, so even applications from the app store need to be checked before they are allowed into the enterprise. Such malicious applications can take over the mobile device and operate in the background without the user knowing, searching for sensitive information such as passwords or banking details.

6. Provide training and end-user support

A relatively small percentage of the overall functionality of the average mobile device is used on a regular basis. With devices becoming more and more sophisticated, users could end up massively under-utilising all the functions that are at their disposal. As a result, most enterprises would benefit from providing user training, including how to set up email, device customisation, application selection and usage, understanding browser capabilities, using instant messaging, and mobile data services and understanding device functions and shortcuts. Support and training can increase worker efficiency and also reduce security risks, as employees better understand how their devices work.

Managing employee mobility doesn’t need to be a nightmare. With the right systems put into place, employees and employers alike can reap the benefits of mobility.

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Managing the mobile security paradigm

There have been profound changes in recent years in the way that people work. Mobility, virtualisation and globalisation have extensively altered how business is conducted. These changes mean that updated and upgraded security systems are needed to ensure data security.

There are new collaborative methods to help companies manage their information systems, solutions for virtualising information applications and cutting excessive investments are springing up and fresh hardware is delivering more mobility every day. But with these altered usage patterns come new threats and risks to security.

Professional and personal data confusion

Mobility is becoming an increasingly important aspect of business, and workers using devices such as smartphones or tablets to access the corporate network are quickly becoming ubiquitous.

However, there is a trend towards employees bringing their own device to work and using their personal smartphone or tablet for professional as well as personal purposes. This consumerisation of computing, with its permanent connection to the corporate network, increases the potential danger of data leaks if the device is lost or stolen. There is an increased risk of professional/personal data confusion, potentially resulting in legal penalties for the business and serious risk of virus and malware issues, as many personal devices are not properly protected.

Recent technologies such as cloud computing and social networking are helping to create these new usage patterns and ways of sharing information. These changes require a much higher level of transparency. Considering many organisations are increasingly subject to compliance regulations, it is vital to have strong and secure information systems in place. Companies need to identify and protect confidential information and show due care and diligence in protecting this information, not just for their own privacy but also for their customers.

Threats

Threats to companies are proliferating at an exponential rate. On average, there are 2,000 new threats every day adding to the estimated 45 million viruses already in circulation.

Attacks are more targeted and sophisticated than ever before, representing a substantial threat to businesses, government and sensitive infrastructures such as the military, utilities, hospitals and others. This makes having appropriate security defences in place for mobile devices paramount. With so many threats out there, the chance of a breach is just too high.

For internal protection against these clandestine threats, strong security infrastructure is required to protect organisational communication and information systems and ensure that everyday business is not disrupted. Different solutions to consider include firewalls, filters for incoming and outgoing web and mail data, IT infrastructure segregation for extranets, partner networks and strong intrusion detection systems that can identify unusual activities and suspicious behaviour and stop threats from infiltrating the corporate network.

External end-user protection is also crucial and may initially seem like a straightforward issue, but becomes increasingly complex when you factor in the multiple devices in use by many workers, in many locations. There are many security systems to consider, such as user authentication and authorisation, secure communications between users and corporate networks, security monitoring to provide transparency and validation of the compliance process and day-to-day security reports and monitoring.

A balance between protection and freedom

However, it is critical to maintain a balance between protection and freedom, as too much complexity within security systems can overburden the network, slowing down application response times and making it difficult for employees to access the network when needed.

Too many different solutions can also have the undesirable result of creating loopholes and system vulnerabilities, making it easier for cybercriminals to infiltrate the network and exploit confidential information.

Implementing appropriate security for the new working paradigm may seem like a formidable challenge. However, mobility does not have to be a risk for organisational security – with the right solutions in place, it can create new efficiencies and cost savings while allowing the workforce to work anytime, anywhere.

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Embedded network security: defence at all levels

Perimeter controls are no longer enough

Confidential information is increasingly at risk in many organisations. Recent incidents have shown that perimeter controls are no longer enough—businesses need to seriously update their security strategies to reflect new threats and new working practices. With bring-your-own-device becoming the norm and employees becoming more mobile, company data is increasingly being taken out of the organisation on laptops, smartphones, tablets and more. Third parties are connecting to the corporate network on devices that the IT department has little, if no, control over, and branch offices are becoming the mainstay of multinational organisations.

The traditional perimeter around a business is no longer there, so companies must adapt to ensure their security, both internal and external, is up to scratch. Those businesses who do not modernise their security will inevitably be more at risk of a security breach that has the potential to seriously disrupt regular business activity.

The Nomadic Challenge

In the knowledge economy, rock-solid security is a must have. Intellectual property is at a financial premium, so it is essential to protect it from inadvertent loss and to keep it out of the reach of professional fraudsters. Information is becoming increasingly difficult to secure in companies that have many branch offices with limited IT resources and growing numbers of mobile workers.

The task of securing information has been made much more difficult by the workforce becoming increasingly nomadic. While this extends a company’s reach, it also extends their risk. Confidential information is frequently out in the field and away from the direct control of the IT department. With increased mobile working, it is not all that surprising that there has been a rise in laptop loss and theft, and yet, few companies encrypt the data stored on mobile devices.

The 3rd Party Challenge

It is not just mobile employees who can put a strain on an organisation’s security. An increasing number of organisations are inviting third parties into their corporate environments and providing them with company services, such as email, web portals and business applications. In security terms, third parties introduce an unknown quantity into the organisation—their devices may not be secured and could potentially introduce malware into the network, or they may not be properly identified and inadvertently given access to confidential information.

The Remote Site Challenge

It is at smaller sites where the risk is most pronounced. Many multinationals have moved away from having a handful of very large sites and offices to a decentralised infrastructure with many smaller offices, depots, sites or outlets. Centralised delivery of enterprise applications over the corporate WAN is empowering this change, however, this often means that there is very little IT resource needed at smaller sites. Although this centralised delivery is an efficient use of resources for application delivery, it leaves smaller locations exposed with little to know IT security onsite.

The Trusted Zone Challenge

Essentially, the corporate network cannot be relied on to be the “trusted zone” that it once was. Organisations need to become “de-perimeterised”. There is no point in having an enterprise perimeter if workers need to access corporate information when they are outside of it. To protect the de-perimeterised organisation, it is important to have security embedded throughout the business.

Enterprises need to have consistent and comprehensive security from the edge of the enterprise through the local area network to the end user. All assets and sites need to be protected as security is only as strong as the weakest link. Automatic preventative devices, which can automatically take action based on what the device has detected, should be embedded throughout the organisation at all layers. Security controls need to be embedded in the infrastructure layer, the transport layer and the application layer in order to ensure that the entire organisation is secure from threats.

For example, user authentication needs to be embedded within the application layer to control access to company resources. The level of accreditation needs to be automatically calculated based on the user’s personal security level and the device and network from which he or she wishes to access the resource.

Embedded network security Opportunity

The de-perimeterisation of an organisation means that security breaches don’t just happen outside a nominal boundary that is protected by a firewall, they can happen just as easily inside. For this reason it is essential to also embed security in the transport layer so that all communications within the business are protected from security breaches.

For too many businesses, security is still seen as merely an expense, when in fact good security offers many business advantages. Security must be seen as an essential element to growing the business, as it not only protects users, but it also enhances productivity by making sure the right people access the right resources at the right time. Embedded network security can ensure that an organisation is secured from top to bottom, providing invaluable peace of mind.

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Steps to mastering identity and access management

As the workforce becomes increasingly mobile and dispersed, identity and access management becomes more important in ensuring organisational security. While managing user identities and controlling access are separate tasks, they are closely related. Identity and access management (IAM) needs to be a key part of business security strategy, particularly as organisations grow and IT architectures become more complex. Here are five things to consider when planning your IAM strategy.

1. Identity data infrastructure

It is not possible to manage user identities without having an appropriate data infrastructure in place to store user information. This generally involves the use of directory and metadirectory systems, usually based on lightweight directory access protocol (LDAP), industry standard for accessing directory data.

Decision makers should consider federated identity as part of the underlying data structure. This allows systems to automatically grant access to users of other systems. Federated identity systems assign permissions to each other, creating a secure web of trusted applications. However, enterprises need to tread carefully when designing these systems—complexity can create more headaches than necessary and increase management overhead, while also limiting the flexibility to change application specifications or relationships.

While federated identity can be used to integrate disparate systems together (including those inside a single organisation), it is also necessary to assign the appropriate level of expertise to the design and maintenance of such a solution.

2. Define roles and entitlements

Two important, but still nascent, techniques that have a significant effect on access control are entitlement management and role-based access control. Systems that carry out these functions allow administrators to define multiple roles in an organisation, along with a granular set of entitlements to allow system access. When combined, they allow for very tight control of user access. For example, someone in a junior accounting role could access a particular database, but only until 6pm.

Defining and maintaining these roles and entitlements requires significant input from business management, which can potentially lead to complications if organisational requirements change. Business management needs to carefully monitor entitlements and roles in order to ensure operational security.

3. Automate the provisioning process

Identity management helps improve company-wide productivity and security, while also lowering the cost of managing users and their identities, attributes and credentials. This requires automation, but it also contains hidden challenges, as just setting up a user name and a password is often simply not enough. Instead, multiple steps must be included in the provisioning process. For example, users might be assigned a sales region, enrolled into a different number of organisational teams or given a list of company resources to which they have access.

4. Simplify access control

Controlling access to systems is a separate but related task to managing identity. The user can only be authenticated if their identity is in the system, but the task of authentication poses another challenge. Users must be able to access the system relatively easily to avoid illicit circumvention of security settings, and yet their credentials must be secure enough to stop attackers simply waltzing through the gate. Enterprise sign-on systems can provide users with access to multiple enterprise applications using just one set of credentials. For added security, hardware-based tokens can also be issued as part of a two-step authentication process.

5. Audit

Any identity and access management system is not complete without a robust reporting capability to meet the needs of auditors facing compliance regulations. Organisations should be able to provide audit trails showing which users had access to what resources, and what was done with those resources. With increasing levels of compliance required from organisations, it is wise to ensure that evidence can be provided when needed.

Summary

Any comprehensive IAM effort is complex, but cloud-based services can help to reduce deployment times. A competent and experienced IT operator can not only host the infrastructure necessary for managing both identity and access control, but can also provide consulting services to help integrate it effectively into a customer’s existing IT architecture. When the time and due consideration is taken, IAM can prove to be a valuable asset to any organisation.

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