Dealing With The Snowpocalypse

February 3, 2011

Like most of the continental United States, Buffalo was expected to suffer the brunt of a tremendous storm this week. Fortunately, we escaped relatively unscathed – despite dozens of schools and businesses preemptively canceling their workdays on Wednesday, the anticipated feet of snow and ice never arrived.

Despite this, though, I imagine that a lot of businesses in the area were taking a long look at their disaster plans. Just because some employees are unable to get to the office doesn’t mean that the business should simply close down for the day. In that vein, I wanted to mention two topics that need to be addressed if you want work to be possible outside of the physical boundaries of your business location.

Centralize Your Data

Too many small businesses work in an ad-hoc fashion, without any centralized file storage. This means that important documents are only available on a particular person’s workstation, or are squirreled away on a flash drive or floppy disk in the back of a locked drawer in the author’s desk. One of the first steps toward making your information infrastructure more robust is to properly centralize and organize your data. This has several advantages:

  • A single central data store is much easier to back up than a collection of random workstations.
  • A single employee leaving or changing jobs will not affect the information that he or she was handling.
  • A single workstation with a hardware failure can be easily replaced, since user data won’t need to be replicated from the old drive.
  • Most importantly, an individual employee’s work is no longer dependent on a single physical workstation.

Think about it – what is the biggest single factor that keeps knowledge employees from working at home now? It’s that they don’t have access to their data – memos, notes, project lists, legacy files, and the like. Most people have a computer and some sort of Internet access at home, but without data access, that doesn’t mean that they can work effectively. And without centralization of data, they can’t get that data access.

Now, centralization of data can mean many different things depending on what sort of data they need to handle. If it’s primarily textual or documentary data, a wiki like MediaWiki or Confluence might be a good option. For data that many people are editing and collaborating on, a version control system like Subversion might be appropriate. For general file storage, a file server built on Ubuntu and Samba might be your best bet. Beyond choosing the appropriate methodology for the data, the important thing is realizing the necessity of having all of the data in one place.

Deploy a VPN

Once all of the data is properly centralized, that means that any computer with proper access to your local network will be able to access it. Under normal business circumstances, this means that your employees can access or share their work from anywhere in the building. This is good – it makes work more efficient and flexible. More importantly, combining this centralized data with a Virtual Private Network means that your employees can access their data from anywhere on the Internet. This is even better.

Let’s look at the example of Alice and Bob. Alice and Bob are collaborating on a piece of documentation – Alice has deployed a new piece of equipment, and Bob is in charge of writing up the procedure for using it.Each time Bob writes a new section of the guide, Alice has to approve it.

Under the old model, where everything is stored on local hard drives, the writing of this documentation grinds to a halt whenever Alice or Bob is out of the office. After all, if Bob has changed something, and then leaves work early, the data is stored on his computer and Alice can’t confirm that it’s been changed or that the changes are accurate. A lot of time is wasted waiting for an opportunity for the two of them to work together.

In the new model, where data is centralized, Alice doesn’t have to wait for Bob – the new data is stored on some central server, like a wiki, and so she can continue checking its accuracy without his needing to be present. But if any changes need to be made, again, the project grinds to a halt. Bob needs to be on-site for the process to continue.

But if we combine this centralized data with a VPN, then Bob can work from anywhere on the Internet. A snow day, like the one that was anticipated this week, shouldn’t slow anything down; Bob can log into the business VPN, gain access to the central data store, and continue working on the documentation. Alice can do the same. And rather than losing a day of productivity to a snowstorm or a driving ban, they can finish the documentation and be ready to move on to another task when the office is open again.

Data centralization and VPN deployment are two of the many services that we offer. If you would like help disaster-proofing your business’s data, please click on the Contact button to the left and send us an email.

Bring-Your-Own-Hardware in the Enterprise

January 30, 2011

In case you haven’t noticed, we’re in the middle of a seismic shift in end-user computing. Gone are the days of desktop computers, chained to a piece of furniture and attached over a local network to a file server and a print spooler. The new watchwords are mobility and flexibility, as more and more workers are getting accustomed to tablet computers, smartphones, laptops, and the ability to access their data from anywhere with an Internet connection. More and more often, employees want to have this sort of experience at work as well as at home, even going so far as to use their personally-owned equipment on their employer’s network.

From the employee’s point of view, it just makes sense. Given the choice between a boring two-year-old HP or Dell desktop computer running the locked-down corporate image of Vista and a sleek new MacBook, most people are going to choose the latter. Especially if they’re already Macintosh enthusiasts.

From the employer’s point of view, it also makes sense – if your employees are happy, they’re going to more productive. And if having exactly the computing environment they want, on their own dime, makes them happy; well, who would stand in the way? The company is saving money from the technology budget, the employees can choose the tools they’re most comfortable with. It’s a win-win situation.

However, things can go south in a hurry. Little or no input over employee equipment means that it’s difficult to maintain a solid security posture. Clients need to be treated as hostile and anonymous until proven otherwise, a clear break from the tradition of trusted clients that have been vetted by IT. If you decide to move in this direction in your own company, here are a few principles and suggestions that you should keep in mind.

  • Have Appropriate Policies, And Publicize Them

Many of the things that I am going to suggest depend on writing clear, concise policies and educating your end users about them. When users are in charge of their own workstations, they need to understand the consequences of their actions. Central IT is not able to provide the safety net that they have in the past when they don’t have any control over the clients on the network.

Policies need to be inclusive, rather than exclusive – that is, they should include requirements rather than restrictions. Also, they should be as technology-agnostic as possible. This makes them easier to keep current, and harder to find loopholes in.

“All mobile devices connecting to the Exchange environment must be ActiveSync compatible.” – Good.

“Mobile devices running Windows Mobile are forbidden on the corporate network.” – Bad. What happens when Microsoft changes the name of their mobile OS? And what if there’s another OS that you’re banning for the same reason?

  • Guard Network Access Jealously

If users are going to be showing up with their own devices and plugging them into your network, you need some way to know who owns what. At the very least, implement a registration system like Netreg so that you can track MAC addresses and who owns them. (I know that this is trivially spoofed, but it’s better than nothing.) A better solution would be to roll out 802.1x on both the wired and wireless networks, forcing authentication against a centralized RADIUS server at connection time. An ideal solution would be a full-blown Network Access Control implementation, whether it’s something commercial like Cisco Clean Access or Bradford Campus Manager, or an open-source solution like Packetfence. A Network Access Control (NAC) system not only registers the devices, but can evaluate their security posture to allow or disallow access to the network.

So, if you have a site license for an antivirus product, and you don’t want people connecting to your network without it, a NAC can make that happen. It may seem like an unnecessary investment, until the first time there’s a malware outbreak on your network and you have no way to isolate infected machines.

Also, it is appropriate to treat every client as potentially infected or hostile. Use IDS/IPS systems to monitor traffic, use host-based firewalling to protect servers from clients that haven’t been whitelisted, use egress filtering and log flow data at your border.

  • Have A Proper Backup System

Imagine this scenario – you find out that one of your employees has been giving proprietary data to a competitor. This person works in sales, and has a tremendous amount of vital customer data in his possession. On his personally-owned laptop. Which you would have no legal right to access, at least not without lawyers getting involved.


Products like Microsoft Data Protection Manager and Apple Time Machine should be used to take regular, periodic backups of corporate data stored on personally owned computers. If data is the lifeblood of your business, and for most people it is, then there needs to be at least one copy of that data on a machine that’s owned by the business. This is one of those policies that I was talking about earlier.

  • Secure the Endpoints

Your company needs to have a policy governing encryption of sensitive data, regardless of who owns the hardware. Modern operating systems all come with encryption options – Apple’s FileVault, Microsoft’s BitLocker, the LUKS capability built into most Linux distributions. Aside from those, there are a wealth of third-party tools like PGP Desktop or Utimaco that can be installed and used. Anything carrying sensitive data needs to be properly secured, especially if that “anything” is spending sixteen hours a day outside of the office and unaccounted for with its owner. Anything containing “work data” needs to be encrypted; you don’t want to be the business on the front page of the local paper after someone in Accounting leaves his Thinkpad in a taxi.

This goes for mobile phones, as well. A system like Blackberry Server Express or Microsoft Exchange allows security requirements to be pushed down to associated handsets. At the very least, passwords should be required after a short lockout period, and employees should be required to report a lost handset immediately so that it can be remotely wiped.

  • Use Remote Desktop Capabilities

For truly sensitive information, it might be wise not to let it leave your corporate servers at all. Technologies like Citrix Access Gateway or Microsoft Remote Desktop can be used to allow access to a desktop shell without ever moving data across the link to the client machine. I would recommend using multi-factor authentication, with ID tokens or smart cards, to mitigate the risk of a compromised machine leaking authentication credentials to your terminal server environment.

  • Conclusion

First, the bad news: there’s no way to make a network of dissimilar, un-vetted devices completely secure. It is entirely possible for an end user to simply disregard policy and wreak tremendous havoc on your network before you’re able to stop him. If you’re able to stop him.

But here’s the good news: a network that is designed to actively deal with the threat of a rogue client is much more likely to withstand an internal attack that one designed around the traditional trusted-machines-behind-a-single-firewall model. Implementing these technical suggestions, along with dissemination of appropriate policy, could easily make a Bring-Your-Own-Hardware network more reliable and robust than its traditional counterparts, even with employees choosing their own gear.