Learn how BLDD Architects developed IT security that supports all of its servers and mix of clients in a way that’s invisible to its end users.
Implementing and managing IT security has leaped in complexity for organizations ranging from small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) to massive government agencies.
Once-safe products used to thwart invasions now have been exploited. E-mail phishing campaigns are far more sophisticated, leading to damaging ransomware attacks.
What’s more, the jack-of-all-trades IT leaders of the mid-market concerns are striving to protect more data types on and off premises, their workload servers and expanded networks, as well as the many essential devices of the mobile workforce.
Security demands have gone up, yet there is a continual need for reduced manual labor and costs -- while protecting assets sooner and better.
The next BriefingsDirect security strategies case study examines how a Kansas economic development organization has been able to gain peace of mind by relying on increased automation and intelligence in how it secures its systems and people.
To explore how an all-encompassing approach to security has enabled improved results with fewer hours at a smaller enterprise, BriefingsDirect sat down with Jeff Kater, Director of Information Technology and Systems Architect at Kansas Development Finance Authority (KDFA) in Topeka. The discussion is moderated by Dana Gardner, Principal Analyst at Interarbor Solutions.
Here are some excerpts:
Gardner: As a director of all of IT at KDFA, security must be a big concern, but it can’t devour all of your time. How have you been able to balance security demands with all of your other IT demands?
Kater: That’s a very interesting question, and it has a multi-segmented answer. In years past, leading up to the development of what KDFA is now, we faced the trends that demanded very basic anti-spam solutions and the very basic virus threats that came via the web and e-mail.
What we’ve seen more recently is the growing trend of enhanced security attacks coming through malware and different exploits -- that were once thought impossible -- are now are the reality.
Therefore in recent times, my percentage of time dedicated to security had grown from probably five to 10 percent all the way up to 50 to 60 percent of my workload during each given week.
Gardner: Before we get to how you’ve been able to react to that, tell us about KDFA.
Kater: KDFA promotes economic development and prosperity for the State of Kansas by providing efficient access to capital markets through various tax-exempt and taxable debt obligations.
KDFA works with public and private entities across the board to identify financial options and solutions for those entities. We are a public corporate entity operating in the municipal finance market, and therefore we are a conduit finance authority.
KDFA is a very small organization -- but a very important one. Therefore we run enterprise-ready systems around the clock, enabling our staff to be as nimble and as efficient as possible.
There are about nine or 10 of us that operate here on any given day at KDFA. We run on a completely virtual environment platform via Citrix XenServer. So we run XenApp, XenDesktop, and NetScaler -- almost the full gamut of Citrix products.
We have a few physical endpoints, such as laptops and iPads, and we also have the mobile workforce on iPhones as well. They are all interconnected using the virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) approach.
Gardner: You’ve had this swing, where your demands from just security issues have blossomed. What have you been doing to wrench that back? How do you get your day back, to innovate and put in place real productivity improvements?
We wanted to be able to be nimble, to be adaptive, and to grow our business workload while maintaining our current staff size.
Kater: We went with virtualization via Citrix. It became our solution of choice due to not being willing to pay the extra tax, if you will, for other solutions that are on the market. We wanted to be able to be nimble, to be adaptive, and to grow our business workload while maintaining our current staff size.
When we embraced virtualization, the security approaches were very traditional in nature. The old way of doing things worked fantastically for a physical endpoint.
The traditional approaches to security had been on our physical PCs for years. But when that security came over to the virtual realm, they bogged down our systems. They still required updates be done manually. They just weren’t innovating at the same speed as the virtualization, which was allowing us to create new endpoints.
And so, the maintenance, the updating, the growing threats were no longer being seen by the traditional approaches of security. We had endpoint security in place on our physical stations, but when we went virtual we no longer had endpoint security. We then had to focus on antivirus and anti-spam at the server level.
What we found out very quickly was that this was not going to solve our security issues. We then faced a lot of growing threats again via e-mail, via web, that were coming in through malware, spyware, other activities that were embedding themselves on our file servers – and then trickling down and moving laterally across our network to our endpoints.
Gardner: Just as your organization went virtual and adjusted to those benefits, the malware and the bad guys, so to speak, adjusted as well -- and started taking advantage of what they saw as perhaps vulnerabilities as organizations transitioned to higher virtualization.
Security for all, by all
Kater: They did. One thing that a lot of security analysts, experts, and end-users forget in the grand scheme of things is that this virtual world we live in has grown so rapidly -- and innovated so quickly -- that the same stuff we use to grow our businesses is also being used by the bad actors. So while we are learning what it can do, they are learning how to exploit it at the same speed -- if not a little faster.
Gardner: You recognized that you had to change; you had to think more about your virtualization environment. What prompted you to increase the capability to focus on the hypervisor for security and prevent issues from trickling across your systems and down to your endpoints?
Kater: Security has always been a concern here at KDFA. And there has been more of a security focus recently, with the latest news and trends. We honestly struggled with CryptoLocker, and we struggled with ransomware.
While we never had to pay out any ransom or anything -- and they were stopped in place before data could be exfiltrated outside of KDFA’s network -- we still had two or three days of either data loss or data interruption. We had to pull back data from an archive; we had to restore some of our endpoints and some of our computers.
We needed to have a solution for our virtual environment -- one that would be easy to deploy, easy to manage, and it would be centrally managed.
As we battled these things over a very short period of time, they were progressively getting worse and worse. We decided that we needed to have a solution for our virtual environment – one that would be not only be easy to deploy, easy to manage, but it would be centrally managed as well, enabling me to have more time to focus back on my workload -- and not have to worry so much about the security thresholds that had to be updated and maintained via the traditional model.
So we went out to the market. We ran very extensive proof of concepts (POCs), and those POCs very quickly illustrated that the underlying architecture was only going to be enterprise-ready via two or three vendors. Once we started running those through the paces, Bitdefender emerged for us.
I had actually been watching the Hypervisor Introspection (HVI) product development for the past four years, since its inception came with a partnership between Citrix, Intel, the Linux community and, of course, Bitdefender. One thing that was continuous throughout all of that was that in order to deploy that solution you would need GravityZone in-house to be able to run the HVI workloads.
And so we became early adopters of Bitdefender GravityZone, and we are able to see what it could do for our endpoints, our servers, and our Microsoft Exchange Servers. Then, Hypervisor Introspection became another security layer that we are able to build upon the security solution that we had already adopted from Bitdefender.
Gardner: And how long have you had these solutions in place?
Kater: We are going on one and a half to two years for GravityZone. And when HVI went to general availability earlier this year, in 2017, and we were one of the first adopters to be able to deploy it across our production environment.
Gardner: If you had a “security is easy” button that you could pound on your desk, what are the sorts of things that you look for in a simpler security solution approach?
IT needs brains to battle breaches
Kater: The “security is easy” button would operate much like the human brain. It would need that level of intuitive instinct, that predictive insight ability. The button would generally be easily managed, automated; it would evolve and learn with artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning what’s out there. It would dynamically operate with peaks and valleys depending on the current status of the environment, and provide the security that’s needed for that particular environment.
Gardner: Jeff, you really are an early adopter, and I commend you on that. A lot of organizations are not quite as bold. They want to make sure that everything has been in the market for a long time. They are a little hesitant.
But being an early adopter sounds like you have made yourselves ready to adopt more AI and machine learning capabilities. Again, I think that’s very forward-looking of you.
But tell us, in real terms, what has being an early adopter gotten for you? We’ve had some pretty scary incidents just in the recent past, with WannaCry, for example. What has being an early adopter done for you in terms of these contemporary threats?
Kater: The new threats, including the EternalBlue exploit that happened here recently, are very advanced in nature. Oftentimes when these breaches occur, it takes several months before they have even become apparent. And oftentimes they move laterally within our network without us knowing, no matter what you do.
Some of the more advanced and persistent threats don’t even have to infect the local host with any type of software. They work in the virtual memory space. It’s much different than the older threats, where you could simply reboot or clear your browser cache to resolve them and get back to your normal operations.
Earlier, when KDFA still made use of non-persistent desktops, if the user got any type of corruption on their virtual desktop, they were able to reboot, and get back to a master image and move on. However, with these advanced threats, when they get into your network, and they move laterally -- even if you reboot your non-persistent desktop, the threat will come back up and it still infects your network. So with the growing ransomware techniques out there, we can no longer rely on those definition-based approaches. We have to look at the newer techniques.
As far as why we are early adopters, and why I have chosen some of the principles that I have, I feel strongly that you are really only as strong as your weakest link. I strive to provide my users with the most advanced, nimble, and agnostic solutions possible.
We are able to grow and compute on any device anywhere, anytime, securely, with minimal limitations.
We are able to grow and compute on any device anywhere, anytime, securely, with minimal limitations. It allows us to have discussions about increasing productivity at that point, and to maximize the potential of our smaller number of users -- versus having to worry about the latest news of security breaches that are happening all around us.
Gardner: You’re able to have a more proactive posture, rather than doing the fire drill when things go amiss and you’re always reacting to things.
Gardner: Going back to making sure that you’re getting a fresh image and versions of your tools … We have heard some recent issues around the web browser not always being safe. What is it about being able to get a clean version of that browser that can be very important when you are dealing with cloud services and extensive virtualization?
Virtual awareness, secure browsing
Kater: Virtualization in and of itself has allowed us to remove the physical element of our workstations when desirable and operate truly in that virtual or memory space. And so when you are talking about browsers, you can have a very isolated, a very clean browser. But that browser is still going to hit a website that can exploit your system. It can run in that memory space for exploitation. And, again, it doesn't rely on plug-ins to be downloaded or anything like that anymore, so we really have to look at the techniques that these browsers are using.
What we are able to do with the secure browsing technique is publish, in our case, via XenApp, any browser flavor with isolation out there on the server. We make it available to the users that have access for that particular browser and for that particular need. We are then able to secure it via Bitdefender HVI, making sure that no matter where that browser goes, no matter what interface it’s trying to align with, it’s secure across the board.
Gardner: In addition to secure browsing, what do you look for in terms of being able to keep all of your endpoints the way you want them? Is there a management approach of being able to verify what works and what doesn’t work? How do you try to guarantee 100 percent security on those many and varied endpoints?
Kater: I am a realist, and I realize that nothing will ever be 100 percent secure, but I really strive for that 99.9 percent security and availability for my users. In doing so -- being that we are so small in staff, and being that I am the one that should manage all of the security, architecture, layers, networking and so forth -- I really look for that centralized model. I want one pane of glass to look at for managing, for reporting.
I want that management interface and that central console to really tell me when and if an exploit happens, what happened with that exploit, where did it go, what did it do to me and how was I protected.
I want that management interface and that central console to really tell me when and if an exploit happens, what happened with that exploit, where did it go, and what did it do to me and how was I protected. I need that so that I can report to my management staff and say, “Hey, honestly, this is what happened, this is what was happening behind the scenes. This is how we remediated and we are okay. We are protected. We are safe.”
And so I really look for that centralized management. Automation is key. I want something that will automatically update, with the latest virus and malware definitions, but also download the latest techniques that are seen out there via those innovative labs from our security vendors to fully patch our systems behind the scenes. So it takes that piece of management away from me and automates it to make my job more efficient and more effective.
Gardner: And how has Bitdefender HVI, in association with Bitdefender GravityZone, accomplished that? How big of a role does it play in your overall solution?
Kater: It has been a very easy deployment and management, to be honest. Again, entities large and small, we are all facing the same threats. When we looked at ways to attain the best solution for us, we wanted to make sure that all of the main vendors that we make use of here at KDFA were on board.
And it just so happened this was a perfect partnership, again, between Citrix, Bitdefender, Intel, and the Linux community. That close partnership, it really developed into HVI, and it is not an evolutionary product. It did not grow from anything else. It really is a revolutionary approach. It’s a different way of looking at security models. It’s a different way of protecting.
HVI allows for security to be seen outside of the endpoint, and outside of the guest agent. It’s kind of an inside-looking-outward approach. It really provides high levels of visibility, detection and, again, it prevents the attacks of today, with those advanced persistent threats or APTs.
With that said, since the partnership between GravityZone and HVI is so easy to deploy, so easy to manage, it really allows our systems to grow and scale when the need is there. And we just know that with those systems in place, when I populate my network with new VMs, they are automatically protected via the policies from HVI.
Given that the security has to be protected from the ground all the way up, we rest assured that the security moves with the workload. As the workload moves across my network, it’s spawned off and onto new VMs. The same set of security policies follows the workloads. It really takes out any human missteps, if you will, along the process because it’s all automated and it all works hand-in-hand together.
Behind the screens
Gardner: It sounds like you have gained increased peace of mind. That’s always a good thing in IT; certainly a good thing for security-oriented IT folks. What about your end-users? Has the ability to have these defenses in place allowed you to give people a bit more latitude with what they can do? Is there a productivity, end-user or user experience benefit to this?
Kater: When it comes to security agents and endpoint security as a whole, I think a lot of people would agree with me that the biggest drawback when implementing those into your work environment is loss of productivity. It’s really not the end-user’s fault. It’s not a limitation of what they can and can't do, but it’s what happens when security puts an extra load on your CPU, it puts extra load on your RAM; therefore, it bogs down your systems. Your systems don’t operate as efficiently or effectively and that decreases your productivity.
With Bitdefender, and the approaches that we adopted, we have seen very, very limited, almost uncomputable limitations as far as impacts on our network, impacts on our endpoints. So user adoption has been greater than it ever has, as far as a security solution.
I’m also able to manipulate our policies within that Central Command Center or Central Command Console within Bitdefender GravityZone to allow my users, at will, if they would like, to see what they are being blocked against, and which websites they are trying to run in the background. I am able to pass that through to the endpoint for them to see firsthand. That has been a really eye-opening experience.
We used to compute daily, thinking we were protected, and that nothing was running in the background. We were visiting the pages, and those pages were acting as though we thought that they should. What we have quickly found out is that any given page can launch several hundred, if not thousands, of links in the background, which can then become an exploit mechanism, if not properly secured.
Gardner: I would like to address some of the qualitative metrics of success when you have experienced the transition to more automated security. Let’s begin with your time. You said you went from five or 10 percent of time spent on security to 50 or 60 percent. Have you been able to ratchet that back? What would you estimate is the amount of time you spend on security issues now, given that you are one and a half years in?
Kater: Dating back 5 to 10 years ago with the inception of VDI, my security footprint as far as my daily workload was probably around that 10 percent. And then, with the growing threats in the last two to three years, that ratcheted it up to about 50 percent, at minimum, maybe even 60 percent. By adopting GravityZone and HVI, I have been able to pull that back down to only consume about 10 percent of my workload, as most of it is automated for me behind the scenes.
Gardner: How about ransomware infections? Have you had any of those? Or lost documents, any other sort of qualitative metrics of how to measure efficiency and efficacy here?
We have had zero ransomware infections in more than a year now. We have had zero exploits and we have had zero network impact.
Kater: I am happy to report that since the adoption of GravityZone, and now with HVI as an extra security layer on top of Bitdefender GravityZone, that we have had zero ransomware infections in more than a year now. We have had zero exploits and we have had zero network impact.
Gardner: Well, that speaks for itself. Let’s look to the future, now that you have obtained this. You mentioned earlier your interest in AI, machine learning, automating, of being proactive. Tell us about what you expect to do in the future in terms of an even better security posture.
Safety layers everywhere, all the time
Kater: In my opinion, again, security layers are vital. They are key to any successful deployment, whether you are large or small. It’s important to have all of your traditional security hardware and software in place working alongside this new interwoven fabric, if you will, of software -- and now at the hypervisor level. This is a new threshold. This is a new undiscovered territory that we are moving into with virtual technologies.
As that technology advances, and more complex deployments are made, it’s important to protect that computing ability every step of the way; again, from that base and core, all the way into the future.
More and more of my users are computing remotely, and they need to have the same security measures in place for all of their computing sessions. What HVI has been able to do for me here in the current time, and in moving to the future, is I am now able to provide secure working environments anywhere -- whether that’s their desktop, whether that’s their secure browser. I am able to leverage that HVI technology once they are logged into our network to make their computing from remote areas safe and effective.
Gardner: For those listening who may not have yet moved toward a hypervisor-level security – or who have maybe even just more recently become involved with pervasive virtualization and VDI -- what advice could you give them, Jeff, on how to get started? What would you suggest others do that would even improve on the way you have done it? And, of course, you have had some pretty good results.
Kater: It’s important to understand that everybody’s situation is very different, so identifying the best solutions for everybody is very much on an individual corporation basis. Each company has its own requirements, its own compliance to follow, of course.
Pick two or three vendors and run very stringent POCs; make sure that they are able to identify your security restraints, try to break them, run them through the phases, see how they affect your network.
The best advice that I can give is pick two or three vendors, at the least, and run very stringent POCs; no matter what they may be, make sure that they are able to identify your security restraints, try to break them, run them through the phases, see how they affect your network. Then, when you have two or three that come out of that and that you feel strongly about, continue to break them down.
I cannot stress the importance of POCs enough. It’s very important to identify that one or two that you really feel strongly about. Once you identify those, then talk to the industry experts that support those technologies, talk to the engineers, really get the insight from the inside out on how they are innovating and what their plan is for the future of their products to make sure that you are on a solid footprint.
Most success stories involve a leap of faith. With machine learning and AI, we are now taking a leap that is backed by factual knowledge and analyzing techniques to stay ahead of threats. No longer are we relying on those virus definitions and those virus updates that can be lagging sometimes.
Gardner: Before we sign off, where do you go to get your information? Where would you recommend other people go to find out more?
Kater: Honestly, I was very fortunate that HVI at its inception fell into my lap. When I was looking around at different products, we just hit the market at the right time. But to be honest with you, I cannot stress enough, again, run those POCs.
If you are interested in finding out more about Bitdefender and its product line up, Bitdefender has an excellent set of engineers on staff; they are very knowledgeable, they are very well-rounded in all of their individual disciplines. The Bitdefender website is very comprehensive. It contains many outside resources, along with inside labs reporting, showcasing just what their capabilities are, with a lot of unbiased opinions.
They have several video demos and technical white papers listed out there, you can find them all across the web and you can request the full product demo when you are ready for it and run that POC of Bitdefender products in-house with your network. Also, they have presales support that will help you all along the way.
Bitdefender HVI will revolutionize your data center security capacity.
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Bringing a central IT focus to large public school systems has always been a challenge, but bringing a security focus to thousands of PCs and devices has been compared to bringing law and order to the Wild West.
For the Clay County School District in Florida, a team of IT administrators is grabbing the bull by the horns nonetheless to create a new culture of computing safety -- without breaking the bank.
The next BriefingsDirect security insight’s discussion examines how Clay County is building a secure posture for their edge, network, and data centers while allowing the right mix and access for exploration necessary in an educational environment.
To learn how to ensure that schools are technically advanced and secure at low cost and at high scale, we're joined by Jeremy Bunkley, Supervisor of the Clay County School District Information and Technology Services Department; Jon Skipper, Network Security Specialist at the Clay County School District, and Rich Perkins, Coordinator for Information Services at the Clay County School District. The discussion is moderated by Dana Gardner, Principal Analyst at Interarbor Solutions.
Here are some excerpts:
Gardner: What are the biggest challenges to improving security, compliance, and risk reduction at a large school district?
Bunkley: I think the answer actually scales across the board. The problem even bridges into businesses. It’s the culture of change -- of making people recognize security as a forethought, instead of an afterthought. It has been a challenge in education, which can be a technology laggard.
Getting people to start the recognition process of making sure that they are security-aware has been quite the battle for us. I don’t think it’s going to end anytime soon. But we are starting to get our key players on board with understanding that you can't clear-text Social Security numbers and credit card numbers and personally identifiable information (PII). It has been an interesting ride for us, let’s put it that way.
Gardner: Jon, culture is such an important part of this, but you also have to have tools and platforms in place to help give reinforcement for people when they do the right thing. Tell us about what you have needed on your network, and what your technology approach has been?
Skipper: Education is one of those weird areas where the software development has always been lacking in the security side of the house. It has never even been inside the room. So one of the things that we have tried to do in education, at least with the Clay County School District, is try to modify that view, with doing change management. We are trying to introduce a security focus. We try to interject ourselves and highlight areas that might be a bad practice.
One of our vendors uses plain text for passwords, and so we went through with them and showed them how that’s a bad practice, and we made a little bit of improvement with that.
I evaluate our policies and how we manage the domains, maybe finding some stuff that came from a long time ago where it's no longer needed. We can pull the information out, whereas before they put all the Social Security numbers into a document that was no longer needed. We have been trying really hard to figure that stuff out and then to try and knock it down, as much as we can.
Access for all, but not all-access
Gardner: Whenever you are trying to change people's perceptions, behaviors, culture, it’s useful to have both the carrot and a stick approach.
So to you Rich, what's been working in terms of a carrot? How do you incentivize people? What works in practice there?
Perkins: That's a tough one. We don't really have a carrot that we use. We basically say, “If you are doing the wrong things, you are not going to be able to use our network.” So we focus more on negatives.
The positives would be you get to do your job. You get to use the Internet. We don't really give them something more. We see security as directly intertwined with our customer service. Every person we have is our customer and our job is to protect them -- and sometimes that's from themselves.
So we don't really have a carrot-type of system. We don't allow students to play games if they have no problems. We give everybody the same access and treat everybody the same. Either you are a student and you get this level of access, or you are a staff member, you get this level of access, or you don't get access.
Gardner: Let’s get background on the Clay County School District. Tell us how many students you have, how many staff administrators, the size and scope of your school district?
Bunkley: Our school district is the 22nd largest in Florida, we are right on the edge of small and medium in Florida, which in most districts is a very large school district. We run about 38,500 students.
And as far as our IT team, which is our student information system, our Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system, security, down to desktop support, network infrastructure support, our web services, we have about 48 people total in our department.
Our scope is literally everything. For some reason IT means that if it plugs into a wall, we are responsible for it. That's generally a true statement in education across the board, where the IT staff tends to be a Jack-of-all-trades, and we fix everything.
Gardner: Where you are headed in terms of technology? Is there a one-to-one student-to-device ratio in the works? What sort of technology do you enable for them?
Bunkley: I am extremely passionate about this, because the one-to-one scenario seems to be the buzzword, and we generally despise buzzwords in this office and we prefer a more practical approach.
The idea of one-to-one is itself to me flawed, because if I just throw a device in a student's hand, what am I actually doing besides throwing a device in a student's hand? We haven't trained them. We haven’t given them the proper platform. All we have done is thrown technology.
And when I hear the terms, well, kids inherently know how to use technology today; it kind of just bothers me, because kids inherently know how to use social media, not technology. They are not production-driven, they are socially driven, and that is a sticking point with me.
We are in fact moving to a one-to-one, but in a nontraditional sense. We have established a one-to-one platform so we can introduce a unified platform for all students and employees to see through a portal system; we happen to use ClassLink, there are various other vendors out there, that’s just the one we happen to use.
We have integrated that in moving to Google Apps for Education and we have a very close relationship with Google. It’s pretty awesome, to be quite honest with you.
So we are moving in the direction of Chromebooks, because it’s just a fiscally more responsible move for us.
I know Microsoft is coming out with Windows 10 S, it’s kind of a strong move on their part. But for us, just because we have the expertise on the Google Apps for Education, or G Suite, it just made a lot of sense for us to go that direction.
So we are moving in one-to-one now with the devices, but the device is literally the least important -- and the last -- step in our project.
Non-stop security, no shenanigans
Gardner: Tell us about the requirements now for securing the current level of devices, and then for the new one. It seems like you are going to have to keep the airplane flying while changing the wings, right? So what is the security approach that works for you that allows for that?
Skipper: Clay County School District has always followed trends as far as devices go. So we actually have a good mixture of devices in our network, which means that no one solution is ever the right solution.
So, for example, we still have some iPads out in our networks, we still have some older Apple products, and then we have a mixture of Chromebooks and also Windows devices. We really need to make sure that we are running the right security platform for the full environment.
As we are transitioning more and more to a take-home philosophy -- and that’s where we as an IT department are seeing this going – so that if the decision is made to make the entire student population go home, we are going to be ready to go.
We have coordinated with our content filter company, and they have some extensions that we can deploy that lock the Chromebooks into a filter situation regardless of their network. That’s been really successful in identifying, maybe blocking students, from those late-night searches. We have also been able to identify some shenanigans that might be taking place due to some interesting web searches that they might do over YouTube, for example. That’s worked really well.
Our next objective is to figure out how to secure our Windows devices and possibly even the Mac devices. While our content filter does a good job as far as securing the content on the Internet, it’s a little bit more difficult to deploy into a Windows device, because users have the option of downloading different Internet browsers. So, content filtering doesn’t really work as well on those.
I have deployed Bitdefender to my laptops, and also to take-home Apple products. That allows me to put in more content filtering, and use that to block people from malicious websites that maybe the content filter didn’t see or was unable to see due to a different browser being used.
In those aspects we definitely are securing our network down further than it ever has been before.
Block and Lock
Perkins: With Bitdefender, one of the things we like is that if we have those devices go off network, we can actually have it turn on the Bitdefender Firewall that allows us to further lock down those machines or protect them if they are in an open environment, like at a hotel or whatever, from possible malicious activity.
And it allows us to block executables at some point. So we can actually go in and say, “No, I don’t want you to be able to run this browser, because I can’t do anything to protect you. Or I can’t watch what you do, or I can’t keep you from doing things you shouldn’t do.” So those are all very useful tools in a single pane of glass that we can see all of those devices at one time and monitor and manage. It saves us a lot of time.
Bunkley: I would follow up on that with a base concept, Dana, and our base concept is of an external network. We come from the concept of, we are an everywhere network. We are not only aiming to defend our internal network while you are here and maybe do some stuff while you are at our house, we are literally an externally built network, where our network will extend directly down into the student and teacher’s home.
We have gone as far as moving everything we physically can out of this network, right down to our firewall. We are moving our domain controllers, external to the network to create literally an everywhere network. And so our security focus is not just internal, it is focused on external first, then internal.
Gardner: With security products, what have you been using, what wasn't working, and where do you expect to go next given those constraints?
No free lunch
Perkins: Well, we can tell you that “free” is not always the best option; as a matter of fact, it’s almost never a good option, but we have had to deal with it.
We were previously using an antivirus called Avast, and it’s a great home product. We found out that it has not been the best business-level product. It’s very much marketed to education, and there are some really good things about it. Transferring away from it hasn’t been the easiest because it’s next to impossible to uninstall. So we have been having some problems with that.
We have also tested some other security measures and programs along the way that haven’t been so successful. And we are always in the process of evaluating where we are. We are never okay with status quo. Even if we achieve where we want to be, I don't think any of us will be satisfied, and that’s actually something that a lot of this is built on -- we always want to go that step further. And I know that’s cliché, but I would say for an institution of this size, the reason we are able to do some of the stuff is the staff that has been assembled here is second to none for an educational institution.
So even in the processes that we have identified, which were helter-skelter before we got here, we have some more issues to continue working out, but we won’t be satisfied with where we are even if we achieve the task.
Skipper: One of the things that our office actually hates is just checking the box on a security audit. I mean, we are very vocal to the auditors when they come in. We don’t do things just to satisfy their audit. We actually look at the audit and we look at the intent of the question and if we find merit in it, we are going to go and meet that expectation and then make it better. Audits are general. We are going to exceed and make it a better functioning process than just saying, “Yes, I have purchased an antivirus product,” or “I have purchased x.” To us that’s unacceptable.
Bunkley: Audits are a good thing, and nobody likes to do them because they are time-consuming. But you do them because they are required by law, for our institution anyways. So instead of just having a generic audit, where we ignore the audit, we have adopted the concept of the audit as a very useful thing for us to have as a self-reflection tool. It’s nice to not have the same set of eyes on your work all the time. And instead of taking offense to someone coming in and saying, “You are not doing this good enough,” we have literally changed our internal culture here, audits are not a bad thing; audits are a desired thing.
Gardner: Let’s go around the table and hear how you began your journey into IT and security, and how the transition to an educational environment went.
IT’s the curriculum
Bunkley: I started in the banking industry. Those hours were crazy and the pressure was pretty high. So as soon as I left that after a year, I entered education, and honestly, I entered education because I thought the schedule was really easy and I kind of copped out on that. Come to find out, I am working almost as many hours, but that’s because I have come to love it.
This is my 17th year in education, so I have been in a few districts now. Wholesale change is what I have been hired to do, that’s also what I was hired here to do in Clay. We want to change the culture, make IT part of the instruction instead of a separate segment of education.
We have to be interwoven into everything, otherwise we are going to be on an island, and the last time I heard the definition of education is to educate children. So IT can never by itself be a high-functioning department in education. So we have decided instead to go to instruction, and go to professional development, and go to administration and intervene ourselves.
Gardner: Jon, tell us about your background and how the transition has been for you.
Skipper: I was at active-duty Air Force until 2014 when I retired after 20 years. And then I came into education on the side. I didn’t really expect this job, wasn’t mentally searching for it. I tried it out, and that was three years ago.
It’s been an interesting environment. Education, and especially a small IT department like this one, is one of those interesting places where you can come and really expand on your weak areas. So that’s what I actually like about this. If I need to practice on my group policy knowledge, I can dive in there and I can affect that change. Overall this has been an effective change, totally different from the military, a lot looser as far as a lot of things go, but really interesting.
Gardner: Rick, same question to you, your background and how did the transition go?
Perkins: I spent 21 years in the military, I was Navy. When I retired in 2010, I actually went to work for a smaller district in education mainly because they were the first one to offer me a job. In that smaller district, just like here, we have eight people doing operations, and we have this big department. Jeremy understands from where he came from. It was pretty much me doing every aspect of it, so you do a little security, you do a little bit of everything, which I enjoyed because you are your own boss, but you are not your own boss.
You still have people residing over you and dictating how you are going to work, but I really enjoyed the challenge. Coming from IT security in the military and then coming into education, it’s almost a role reversal where we came in and found next to no policies.
I am used to a black-and-white world. So we are trying to interject some of that and some of the security best practices into education. You have to be flexible because education is not the military, so you can’t be that stringent. So that’s a challenge.
Gardner: What are you using to put policies in place enforce them? How does that work?
Perkins: From a [Microsoft] Active Directory side, we use group policy like most people do, and we try and automate it as much as we can. We are switching over, on the student side, very heavily to Google. They effectively have their own version of Active Directory with group policy. And then I will let Jon speak more to the security side though we have used various programs like PDQ for our patch management system that allows us to push out stuff. We use some logging systems with ManageEngine. And then as we have said before we use Bitdefender to push a lot of policy and security out as well, and we've been reevaluating some other stuff.
We also use SolarWinds to monitor our network and we actually manage changes to our network and switching using SolarWinds, but on the actual security side, I will let Jon get more specific for you.
Skipper: When we came in … there was a fear of having too much in policy equated to too much auditing overhead. One of the first things we did was identify what we can lock down, and the easiest one was the filter.
The content filter met such stipulations as making sure adult material is not acceptable on the network. We had that down. But it didn't really take into account the dynamic of the Internet as far as sites are popping up every minute or second, and how do you maintain that for unclassified and uncategorized sites?
So one of the things we did was we looked at a vendor, like, okay, does this vendor have a better product for that aspect of it, and we got that working, I think that's been working a lot better. And then we started moving down, we were like, okay, cool, so now we have content filtering down, luckily move on to active network, actually not about finding someone else who is doing it, and borrowing their work and making their own.
We look into some of the bigger school districts and see how they are doing it. I think Chicago, Los Angeles. We both looked at some of their policies where we can find it. I found a lot of higher education in some of the universities. Their policies are a lot more along the lines of where we want to be. I think they have it better than what some of the K-12s do.
So we have been going through there and we are going to have to rewrite policy – we are in an active rewrite of our policies right now, we are taking all of those in and we are looking at them, and we are trying to figure out which ones work in our environment and then make sure we do a really good search and replace.
Gardner: We have talked about people, process and technology. We have heard that you are on a security journey and that it’s long-term and culturally oriented.
Let's look at this then as to what you get when you do it right, particularly vis-à-vis education. Do you have any examples of where you have been able to put in the right technology, add some policy and process improvements, and then culturally attune the people? What does that get for you? How do you turn a problem student into a computer scientist at some point? Tell us some of the examples of when it works, what it gets you.
Skipper: When we first got in here, we were a Microsoft district. We had some policies in place to help prevent data loss, and stuff like that.
One of the first things we did is review those policies and activate them, and we started getting some hits. We were surprised at some of hits that we saw, and what we saw going out. We already knew we were moving to the Google networks, continuing the process.
We researched a lot and one of the things we discovered is that just by a minor tweak in a user’s procedures, we were able to identify that we could introduce that user to and get them used to using email encryption, for example. With the Gmail solution, we are able to add an extension, and that extension actually looks at their email as it goes out and finds keywords -- or it may be PII -- and automatically encrypt the email, preventing those kinds of breaches from going out there. So that’s really been helpful.
As far as taking a student who may be on the wrong path and reeducating them and bringing them back into the fold, Bitdefender has actually helped out on that one.
We had a student a while back who went out to YouTube and find out how he could just do a simple search on how to crash the school network, and he found about five links. And he researched those links and went out there and found that this batch filed with this type will crash a school server.
He was able to implement it and started trying to get that attack out there, and Bitdefender was able to actually go out there and see the batch file, see what it did and prevent it. By quarantining the file, I was able to get that reported very quickly from the moment that he introduced the attack, and it identified the student and we were able to sit down with the administrators and talk to the student about that process and educate them on the dangers of actually attacking a school network and the possible repercussions of it.
Gardner: It certainly helps when you can let them know that you are able to track and identify those issues, and then trace them back to an individual. Any other anecdotes about where the technology process and people have come together for a positive result?
Applied IT knowledge for the next generation
Skipper: One of the things that’s really worked well for the school district is what we call Network Academy. It’s taught by one of our local retired master chiefs, and he is actually going in there and teaching students at the high school level how to go as far as earning a Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA)-level IT certificate.
If a student comes in and they try hard enough, they will actually figure it out and they can leave when they graduate with a CCNA, which is pretty awesome. A high school student can walk away with a pretty major industry certification.
We like to try and grab these kids as soon as they leave high school, or even before they leave high school, and start introducing them to our network. They may have a different viewpoint on how to do something that’s revolutionary to us.
But we like having that aspect of it, we can educate those kids who are coming in and getting their industry certifications, and we are able to utilize them before they move on to a college or another job that pays more than we do.
Bunkley: Charlie Thompson leads this program that Jon is speaking of, and actually over half of our team has been through the program. We didn’t create it, we have just taken advantage of the opportunity. We even tailor the classes to some of the specific things that we need. We have effectively created our own IT hiring pipeline out of this program.
Gardner: Next let’s take a look to the future. Where do you see things going, such as more use of cloud services, interest in unified consoles and controls from the cloud as APIs come into play more for your overall IT management? Encryption? Where do you take it from here?
Holistic solutions in the cloud
Bunkley: Those are some of the areas we are focusing on heavily as we move that “anywhere network.” The unified platform for management is going to be a big deal to us. It is a big deal to us already. Encryption is something we take very seriously because we have a team of eight protecting the data of about 42,000 users..
If you consider the perfect cyber crime reaching down into a 7th or an 8th grader and stealing all of their personal information, taking that kid’s identity and using it, that kid won’t even know that their identity has been stolen.
We consider that a very serious charge of ours to take on. So we will continue to improve our protection of the students’ and teachers’ PII -- even if it sometimes means protecting them from themselves. We take it very seriously.
As we move to the cloud, that unified management platform leads to a more unified security platform. As the operating systems continue to mature, they seem to be going different ways. And what’s good for Mac is not always good for Chrome, is not always good for Windows. But as we move forward with our projects we bring everything back to that central point -- can the three be operated from the single point of connection, so that we can save money moving forward? Just because it’s a cool technology and we want to do, it doesn't mean it's the right thing for us.
Sometimes we have to choose an option that we don’t necessarily like as much, but pick it because it is better for the whole. As we continue to move forward, everything will be focused on that centralization. We can remain a small and flexible department to continue making sure that we are able to provide the services needed internally as well as protect our users.
Skipper: I think Jeremy hit it pretty solid on that one. As we integrate more with the cloud services, Google, etc., we are utilizing those APIs and we are leading our vendors that we use and forcing them into new areas. Lightspeed, for instance, is integrating more-and-more with Google and utilizing their API to ensure that content filtering -- even to the point of mobile device management (MDM) that is more integrated into the Google and Apple platforms to make sure that students are well protected and we have all the tools available that they need at any given time.
We are really leaning heavily on more cloud services, and also the interoperability between APIs and vendors.
Perkins: Public education is changing more to the realm of college education where the classroom is not a classroom -- a classroom is anywhere in the world. We are tasked with supporting them and protecting them no matter where they are located. We have to take care of our customers either way.
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