Physical challenges in virtual worlds: Digital transformation stumbling blocks in the enterprise

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Digital transformation has reached a tipping point. 94% of enterprises recognise that their investment in new technology has a tangible impact on bottom-line growth in this regard. This process brings with it an ultimatum: disrupt or be disrupted and the result is four in five businesses are looking to increase their budgets associated with digital transformation activity. Yet it’s not always that easy. There are many challenges that can’t be solved by additional IT spend alone and will instead depend on a new approach.

Virtualisation and cloud migration are prime examples. For many enterprises, this evolution is part-and-parcel of their digital transformation efforts. For others, though, certain hardware represents such an important element of their existing systems that it cannot be replicated in a virtualised environment. These businesses are therefore in a race against time to find workarounds that’ll allow them to progress, and avoid disruption, without hindering their day-to-day operations. 

What are these stumbling blocks? 

Digital transformation challenges associated with physical hardware span all aspects of the IT environment, from data storage to software. Yet it’s the latter that presents what is arguably the biggest challenge. Despite a growing trend for Software-as-a-Service, there are many industries that are reliant on high-value, bespoke software that uses hardware authentication for licensing purposes.  

From forensic investigation technology to financial accounting applications, software of this type is used in all four corners of modern society, and physical dongles (e.g. plug-in USB authentication devices) have long been a necessity for these types of applications. Despite advances in technology, hardware-based protection mechanisms are still one of the most reliable ways to prevent privacy or misuse.   

It’s important to the end-user too. Police constabularies, for example, need to know which employees are running forensic software and when it was accessed – likewise for accountancy teams. This is why dongles have understandably been seen as an ideal way of controlling usage. After all, only an employee that has physical access to the given dongle can run the target software. The problem is that the working environment has changed.

The challenges of today’s enterprise environment 

Changing business models have introduced new challenges. 88% of businesses now rely on some form of cloud computing to address the fact that disparate teams are often spread around the world or otherwise need to travel globally, and so it’s rather common for the intended end-user of high-value software to be in one city while the dongle they need is in another. 

There’s no easy answer to this problem without adopting a new approach to how software like this is managed. Having to carry a physical dongle can be problematic. Equally, even if employees are located in the same physical office, should two or more share access to the same high-value application, that dongle must be transferred from one person to another before the software can be used. 

A much bigger issue to overcome, though, is that many enterprises run thin clients for employees with software and services managed by a data centre or remote server. Here, because the core infrastructure is virtual, there is no physical port to plug a USB device into. If there are physical USB ports, a virtual server in a data centre is most likely set up as a High Availability (HA) system. Through an approach up like this, a virtual server switches between different physical servers automatically to ensure it meets the processing requirements. However, any directly connected USB devices won't make the switch to the other hardware, resulting in software downtime due to problems with authentication. 

'Evidently this isn’t compatible with the hardware-level authentication used by high-value software publishers, which has prompted the need for a new approach – one that’ll bridge the gap between the physical and digital worlds in order to prevent disruption. 

Getting around the problem 

Enterprises have turned to hardware vendors to address this problem as a result, and the concept of a dongle server has become vital to how enterprises manage software that’s protected by physical hardware. In essence, this technology makes it possible to overcome these issues since USB dongles can be made available over the network, working in much the same way as if they’d been directly connected to the user’s computer. Essentially, dongle servers act as a virtual cable extension via the network.

In addition, this approach allows terminals to meet the required authentication requirements so that specialist software can be run on them. The licensing terms are not circumvented in any way either, so it’s also become an important tool for IT managers as they bridge the gap between user experience or convenience requirements and the need to simplify the management and availability of software and applications on the network. 

Dongle server technology bridges the gap between cloud technology and hardware-level protection and works across virtual environments too by maintaining a consistent USB connection to the target device regardless of the underlying physical servers being used. 

Challenge vs opportunity 

By addressing the challenge in this way, enterprises are also creating opportunities to push their digital transformation efforts further. Businesses are able to streamline processes and ensure more efficient use of resources through dongle pooling, for example, enabling employees to request access to the software as soon as a license becomes available. Once the software has been used by that individual, the dongle can be virtually reallocated to the next in line, minimising downtime. 

Dongle servers also meet the requirements of companies or organisations with high security needs. By encrypting the point-to-point connection between the end-user and the dongle server, the potential for unauthorised access is removed. More advanced dongle server vendors also make it possible to dynamically assign which user is authorised to access which dongle, ultimately controlling which computer is able to access the software. 

Conclusion   

It goes without saying that although digital transformation has its benefits it also presents several challenges. High-value software protected by USB devices is critical to the running of many businesses and it is vital that software providers and IT vendors alike are sensitive to this when designing future networks.   

They need to find a way to bridge the gap between the cloud and systems that are hardware-based but essential to their client’s business. This is where the introduction of advanced technology is key for creating an effective workaround without sacrificing business function, and allowing organisations to make the most of the cloud.   

Joachim Sturmhoefel, Managing Director at SEH Technology 

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