It’s time to clear the cloud data fog

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Enterprises have embraced many technologies, especially cloud apps and mobile devices, that have dramatically increased staff productivity, access to information and enhanced collaboration among teams. Of course, the benefits come with a cost. Unfortunately, that cost is most often a dramatic decrease in data visibility. When data is scattered across cloud services, IT managers and security teams lose visibility into the lifecycle of the data, including who and how it’s accessed and where it may eventually travel.

Sometimes such services are deployed and managed by a centralised IT organisation; other times – and this is increasingly the case – these services are chosen independent of the IT department by individual staff and line-of-business managers. This creates a considerable amount of risk and further obscures data visibility as enterprise teams can’t manage or secure data they can’t see.

To get data visibility back, there’s a lot of work enterprises need to do.

To get a sense of the scale of the challenge ahead, and what organisations need to do to regain their visibility, we’ve reached out to Vijay Ramanathan the senior vice president of product management at data loss protection, data visibility, and data recovery provider Code42. At Code42, Vijay leads the product management and design teams.

Common opinion says that the cloud has simplified computing, but you are saying that the rapid adoption of cloud services has also hindered the visibility of data in enterprises?

While cloud services have brought many benefits to enterprises, there’s no getting around the fact that the move to cloud has also had a negative impact on data visibility. Enterprise data are now sprawled across numerous cloud services and devices. This includes public and private clouds, cloud-software services, tablets, smartphones, notebooks, removable storage devices and more.

And data are no longer stored in their data centres, local networks, or endpoints. This makes it much more challenging to keep track of where data travels and who has access to it. 

What can enterprises do to regain visibility while also benefiting from cloud?

This lack of data visibility in the cloud makes it nearly impossible to prevent data loss.

To regain a sense of control, many enterprises try to dictate which devices and cloud services employees are permitted to use for work. The organisations then attempt to block services by whitelisting approved services, monitoring for unapproved services and devices, and then removing access to them once they are spotted.

This traditional, defensive approach to security and data visibility just isn’t effective. Staff will find ways to sidestep these restrictions to find a productive way to work. Interestingly, research we recently commissioned shows that 41 per cent of business leaders admitted to downloading unapproved software on their devices despite known security risks. Their reasons for doing so? They include everything from speed and cost to convenience. Many times, workers are familiar with the software because they use the software personally, and this familiarity increases their productivity.

It’s the “productivity” aspect that should catch the attention of IT and security leaders, as increased productivity is something enterprises want to support and enable as long as they can do it securely.

What do you see your customers doing today to increase the visibility and manageability of their data?

I recently spoke with the CIO of a large company whose leadership team found a way to balance security and convenience by being more progressive. They don’t block staff from the software or cloud services they want to use.

They allow their employees to use whatever tools they want.

They also invest in technology that enables them to proactively monitor which cloud applications are growing more popular in their organisation. Rather than block these applications and services, they incorporate them into their overall IT management program. They’ll buy an enterprise license and bring them into their identity- and access-management program.

As a result, visibility and manageability increases, while the security team gains the oversight and manageability they need.

How does the fluid nature of the modern enterprise affect data visibility, especially as enterprises are increasingly dynamic, undergoing digital transformations, mergers and acquisitions and other significant changes?

Maintaining data visibility isn’t easy. That’s especially true in today’s fluid business and IT environments. I’ll give you an example. Another customer I recently spoke with regarding data and application visibility had a set of challenges I think many enterprises also have experienced. For a time, they managed to standardise themselves on Microsoft’s Office 365 and OneDrive for their collaboration platform. The platform was popular and had accumulated more than three million file versions. Employees accomplished much of their work on this platform and the organisation had good data visibility and manageability. Then an acquisition threw a wrench in things.

The business they acquired had a few hundred employees. Their collaboration platform was the cloud collaboration platform competitor, Google Drive. The organisation found themselves at a crossroad. Were they going to mandate all of their new employees migrate from Google Drive to OneDrive? They considered it. They tried to estimate the cost of such a policy and anticipate if they could even enforce it.

They grappled with whether that move would make sense at that time and how costly it could prove to be. They weren’t even sure how to effectively enforce such a demand.

They also wondered if they had the wherewithal to do so.

It turned out that wasn’t their only data visibility challenge. The communication platform Slack had been introduced into their environment, too. When it comes to data files, Slack can be even more unstructured than collaboration services such as Google Drive and OneDrive because of how easy it is to share files within messages.

Fortunately, the company had a tool in place that provided them visibility into their various cloud collaboration platforms, including Slack. They could see how files moved throughout their environment.

They decided that they would be better off if they simply supported all of these platforms. They could do so because they had the processes and technology already in place to manage their situation, so they would let it  play itself out. Employees could choose the platforms they wanted to use, and the company would eventually sunset the platform with the least adoption.

How does the increasing amount of unstructured data within enterprises, that is data that is stored in standalone files and outside of applications and databases, affect visibility?

Enterprises need to realise that much, if not most, of their data is unstructured. Data often is not found in structured databases or applications or even semi-structured applications such as Salesforce.

The bulk of an enterprises’ data is being stored unstructured as Word, Excel, PowerPoint and PDF files, or their cloud equivalents like Google Docs.

Managing unstructured data is going to continue to be a big challenge as organisations create more and more data every year and these files are being stored across cloud applications. It will be critical to have visibility into the proper file depth, which allows security teams importantly to see the content of files.

In closing, how do enterprises ensure that once they regain their data visibility they can maintain it over the long term?

Enterprises need to put into place data protection practices that are agile and scalable so that as their environments change, and as the business grows, they will be able to maintain data visibility over the long haul.

We have a lot of experience with this through helping our various and growing customers. Those who will be able to maintain data security and visibility over the long term must have a number of capabilities that they must have in place.

First, the organisation must be able to continuously collect file information, monitor for changes in data movement across the organisation, and immediately investigate data threats and file activity across endpoints and cloud services.

Enterprises also need the ability to securely retain their files for as long as necessary so they can conduct security investigations and meet data-compliance mandates.

Finally, should something negative happen to data (and it inevitably will), organisations need the ability to instantly recover all of their files. There needs to be a plan in place for data recovery from events such as specific files becoming corrupted to a widespread ransomware attack. 

The critical thing is for organisations to get comprehensive and proactive data-protection practices and technologies in place, and not wait and react until after a data loss event occurs. By that time, it’s often too late to be able to do anything to mitigate the damage. Not only that, the amount of data and cloud applications enterprises use are only going to increase. So will government and industry regulatory mandates.

It will be those enterprises that can attain and maintain good data visibility that will make it possible to securely, and in a regulatory compliant way, provide users access to the resources and services they want to use.

Vijay Ramanathan, Senior Vice President, Product Management, Code42
Image source: Shutterstock/everything possible