The New Rules: IT Leaders Work to Regain Control of Their New Distributed Environment–Part I

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted day-to-day life. This article presents new data and IT leader perspectives on the practical impact the distributed environment had on endpoint management and security

new rules i
Tanium

Everything has changed.

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted day-to-day life. It has triggered global stay-at-home orders, made many businesses permanently shut their doors, and led to a series of restrictive recommendations from global health organizations, federal governments, and local municipalities.

In response, organizations were forced to transition their operations into a Work From Home (WFH) or distributed workforce environment – overnight. 

This rapid, unplanned transition to a distributed workforce upended traditional IT networks, and necessitated the immediate adoption of decentralized networks, cloud-based services, and a wealth of distributed endpoints.

While many believed these new operating conditions would be temporary, it’s become clear that large-scale WFH will likely persist long after the pandemic.

To make this “new normal” as sustainable as possible, organizations and their IT leaders are now actively defining what it will take to secure their distributed operations.

In this piece, we present new data and targeted interviews to determine what practical impact the overnight move to a distributed environment had on endpoint management and security, and to pinpoint where IT leaders must now focus their time, attention, and budgets to re-establish visibility and control over their operations. 

Here’s what we’ve learned.

Endpoint Security Was an Afterthought During the Transition

Security was an afterthought when bringing systems online,” said Charles Ross, Chief Customer Officer at Tanium. “It was more about just getting the business operational again.”

Since the pandemic struck, Ross has worked directly to restore and secure some of the world’s largest and most complex endpoint environments. His customers include all six branches of the U.S. Armed Forces, multiple branches of the U.S. Federal Government, many large-scale healthcare providers, and educational institutions of every size.

Ross has worked with them through every step of this transition.

“When these new systems came online, the first question wasn’t ‘Does it have the latest set of patches on it?’ or ‘Does it have security software on it?’,” Ross explained. “The first question is, ‘Does it have an internet connection? Can you get on a Zoom call? Are you able to start doing some work again?”

While organizations considered it necessary to de-prioritize security during the early stages of the pandemic, they may not have thought through the security implications of their transition to a distributed workforce.

“When you really look at organizations and how they operated pre-COVID,” Ross continues, “where you had hardened perimeters, you had fortified walls, you had moats, you had all of these things that were there to make sure the bad guys did not get in. And just like that, overnight, all those controls went away and you found yourself operating in your kid’s room and none of these controls were in place.”

To Ross, the implications of this loss of security is clear—and frightening.

“The risk to exposure is tremendous,” Ross concludes. “When you look at the cybercrime industry as a whole, that’s a 1.5 trillion dollar industry. It is always looking for their next great opportunity to take advantage of companies that are in an unprotected state. And we gave them that on a platter.”

Unfortunately, this loss of security controls was not all that occurred during the transition to a distributed operating environment.

Organizations also appear to have lost their ability to properly manage their environment in order to defend themselves once a threat successfully takes advantage of their lowered defenses.

Endpoint Management Has Been Lost for the New Environment

Recent research has investigated the loss of endpoint security and management that many IT leaders have experienced since the pandemic struck.

This research was compiled in the report When the World Stayed Home. The report aggregates, analyzes, and presents the responses of 1,000+ senior IT leaders who were asked fundamental questions about their move to a distributed workforce— including what challenges they experienced, and what they are now doing to reclaim visibility and control over their operational environment.

According to this report, 85% of IT leaders felt prepared to transition their organization to a distributed workforce. However, during the actual transition, 98% of these same leaders faced at least one significant challenge as they attempted to manage and secure their new environment.

The three most-cited challenges IT leaders encountered were:

  1. Identifying new personal computing devices in the network: To ensure business continuity, IT leaders were forced to allow their end users to work from whatever personal devices they had at home. However, many IT leaders said that they were unable to identify every new device connecting to their network, they could not monitor these new devices for operational or security issues, and they overall lost visibility into their operating environment.

  2. Overwhelmed IT teams and overburdened VPN capacity: Pre-COVID, most organizations only allowed WFH for 5%-10% of their employees. Overnight, that number increased to 85%-100%. Their IT teams were forced to work 18-20 hour days to drive this transition, and their VPN networks were crammed with users attempting to reconnect to the corporate network. Combined, IT leaders lacked the resources to patch, update, and control their environment.

  3. Increased security risk from video conferencing: Organizations adopted a wealth of new remote working applications to drive their new distributed workforce—with video conferencing applications like Zoom receiving most of the attention. IT leaders lacked the ability to identify what applications were on what endpoints, to define the version of those applications, and to enforce configurations to ensure those applications were being utilized securely.

Lack of visibility. Inability to patch and update systems. A flood of new applications without proper configurations. Each of these endpoint management issues—and many more like them—have appeared to create a breakdown in IT hygiene during the pandemic.

And even though flashier security threats have received the bulk of media attention, it is this fundamental degradation of IT hygiene that is cause for greater concern for most organizations.

In Part II, we explore those challenges, and how to defend against them.

To dive deeper into others’ perspectives, and to learn more about what happened when the world stayed home, visit world-at-home.tanium.com.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.