Tech Analysis: Consumerization and mobilization in computing are fueling a trend of employees using personal PCs in their jobs. Some enterprises are pushing this as a path to saving money, but IT administrators are struggling to find ways to secure corporate data while keeping employees productive. eWEEK Labs looks at some solutions, including application whitelisting, widening administrative rights, and desktop virtualization from such companies as Microsoft, Citrix and VMware.
IT departments are charged with ensuring the security and
availability of company applications and data. Delivering on this
mandate can be difficult enough on closely managed, company-owned
machines under the direct control of IT.
However, administrators are now facing, with increasing frequency,
the additional wrinkle of supporting PCs over which ultimate control
lies outside of the company. A growing number of employees are looking
to use their own personal PCs in their jobs as well.
Two key factors that are playing into this loss of control by IT
departments are trends toward consumerization and mobilization in
computing. The range of computing product options marketed to
individual users has expanded, and the ease with which these systems
can move between home and work has increased. As a result, IT
departments are faced with supporting or tolerating systems that their
users have brought in from home.
What's more, some companies actively pursue employee-owned notebook
schemes as a means of boosting productivity and reducing support costs
among workers who are technology-savvy enough to shape and maintain
their own desktop environments.
Companies always have the option of banning the use of systems
company data or applications on systems brought from home (with the
inevitable exception of users with enough clout to bend the rules), but
there are plenty of situations in which the line between authorized and
forbidden systems can't be so clear. For instance, companies work in
many cases with contractors or partners who own their own machines, or
telecommuting workers who live outside the range of IT support staff.
Employee-owned or -controlled notebook schemes aren't appropriate
for every company, industry or employee. However, regardless of your
company's policy toward user-controlled systems, it makes sense to
develop a set of strategies for ensuring sufficient levels of data
security and application accessibility for user systems that fall
outside of a strict system management regime.
It's not an easy problem to tackle, most importantly because the
administrative rights over a system with a user-controlled desktop or
notebook scheme are such that users have the right to install arbitrary
applications and drivers on their machines, some of which could be
malicious or harmful in purpose or practice.
Based on eWEEK Labs tests and research, I've identified two primary
approaches to the problem of working with user-controlled desktop and
notebook systems. The first approach involves reaching a sort of
compromise between user control and management policy on a given
machine. The second involves carving out for IT an isolated and closely
managed environment within an otherwise unmanaged system. Both routes
have their drawbacks, benefits and prospects for improvement as the
technologies on which they depend continue to mature.
Approach One: A Negotiated Settlement
The first approach to managing what are essentially unmanaged
systems should be a familiar one because it's the approach that most
home users-as well as a striking number of corporate shops-employ for
their Windows-based desktops and notebooks: The user gets
administrative rights on his or her machine, and IT administrators
layer on policies and products intended to prevent damage or
instability caused by malware and unpatched bugs and vulnerabilities.
As a matter of policy, companies can mandate the use of anti-virus
applications and frequent system patching. They also can direct users
to divide their system administration and daily computing tasks into
separate administrator and limited-rights accounts. On Windows Vista,
the UAC (User Account Control) feature automates administration/daily
use rights separation by limiting the privileges of
administrative-rights users by default, and by requiring confirmation
for operations that require elevated rights.
Administrators can add another layer of management to this scheme by
employing NAC (network access control) to confirm and enforce user
compliance with these policies by conditioning access to corporate
network resources on their satisfaction.
Moving a step further, administrators can employ an application
whitelisting product with a large database of known-good applications,
such as Bit9's Parity, to preserve their users' freedom to control
their computing environments and to install the software of their
choice-from a pool of vetted applications. What's more, an application
whitelisting product gives administrators the option of removing from
the whitelist applications known to conflict with key company software.
While this strategy for dealing with user-controlled systems should
be mostly familiar to administrators and users, there are drawbacks to
sharing control over a desktop or notebook in this way. For instance,
administrators can mandate security baselines and enforce those
baselines through NAC, but unless users can be counted on to keep their
systems in order, IT can find itself stuck on a treadmill of bringing
quarantined systems back into conformance.
More importantly, the fact that ultimate control over the host
operating system lies in the users' hands must result in a trust gap of
sorts, as users' actions can lead to security issues that could
potentially evade the detection of company-mandated anti-virus software.
What's more, focusing your management measures at the client OS
level can lead to restricted platform options, and platform
flexibility-the freedom for users to opt for Mac OS X or Linux over
Windows, for instance-is often a significant driver for user-controlled
Finally, with every mandated management layer that's added to a
user-controlled machine-particularly as we move into the realm of
whitelisting-the machine moves farther from being user-controlled, and
those management layers may prove difficult to keep in place.
Looking forward, I expect to see application whitelisting and
privilege management technologies, including those that ship by default
with Windows, mature to the point where today's all-or-nothing,
superuser-versus-limited-rights state of affairs will give way to allow
for broad user control within a generously sized, but closely vetted,
range of operations and installable applications.
As Editor in Chief of eWEEK Labs, Jason Brooks manages the Labs team and is responsible for eWEEK's print edition. Brooks joined eWEEK in 1999, and has covered wireless networking, office productivity suites, mobile devices, Windows, virtualization, and desktops and notebooks. Jason's coverage is currently focused on Linux and Unix operating systems, open-source software and licensing, cloud computing and Software as a Service. Follow Jason on Twitter at jasonbrooks, or reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.