Its not often that a vendor comes right out and says, “Most of what I sell, you can probably get from my competitors.”
Even when everyone knows that an industry is largely commoditized, most people pretend that their version of the same basic stuff is better all around.
That refreshingly candid comment came up, though, during my conversation with Ron Gula, president and chief technical officer of Tenable Network Security, in Columbia, Md., when we spoke earlier this month about the evolution of IT security offerings.
Gulas point was that many IT buyers today arent driven mainly by technical concerns about which security products are better in a directly measurable sense.
Gula said the differences that remain today along objective dimensions—such as the number of malware types detected—are farther down buyers agendas than issues of manageability, cost and ability to meet the audit and assurance demands of a growing number of regulators and other overseers.
Its not that the technical differences arent there; its that they tend to be small enough that theyre relatively unimportant compared with other differences that greatly affect the performance of a security solution.
Id say that an IT vendor that isnt aware of the customers critical concerns is like an appliance dealer touting a refrigerators lowest achievable temperature when what the customer really wants to know is whether the shelves will hold a Super Bowl partys worth of beer.
Given my conversations of late with enterprise IT buyers, Id say that Tenables CTO has latched on to a sizable grain of truth.
Specifically in the area of security, it occurred to me during our discussion that what was once an identifiable specialty is now an aggregate of efforts by many different players.
Gula agreed: “You used to have a very savvy security team,” he said, “but now theyre in operations, and security has been pushed into audit.”
Try to ask at an enterprise site today, “Whos responsible for IT security?” and I suspect that youll find pieces of the answer in network engineering, in the internal audit department, in the application development organization and, of course, in the contracting office, where so much of IT is now a matter of administering a contract rather than choosing, buying, installing and configuring a product.
Is it good to have more people taking some responsibility for IT security? Sure. Is it a problem that no one can take full responsibility for IT security? Heck, yes.
A CSOs challenge
Gula challenged me with the scenario of a chief security officer whos offered a budget increase of a million dollars.
Think about the mission of the CSO in big-picture terms—measuring performance not by the number of attacks that are blocked but by the degree of success in keeping data available and uncorrupted for those who are supposed to use it and unavailable to those who are not.
That CSO, said Gula, has to think about a combination of policy enforcement, effectiveness audit and disaster recovery when something goes awry: “The CSO gets to ask, What can I do with a million dollars? Outsource commodity functions? Audit internal vulnerabilities?”
The security organization is becoming “more of an enabler, less a technology showcase,” Gula said.
A CSO today cant afford to have tunnel vision focused on technicalities. When it comes to something such as Sarbanes-Oxley compliance, “your company might be cooking its books but have no vulnerabilities at all,” Gula said.
Similar issues confront the lead person for sales force automation, supply chain management or any other business function that uses technology but also depends on process.
For an IT vendor today, Id argue that the challenge is to package ones expertise in the right form—a package that may vary greatly from one client to another, depending on the stage of maturity of any given clients IT process.
Its a question of delivering the optimal mix of services performed, knowledge transferred, and technology deployed and supported to create the right offering for that customer.
Whether or not the core technologies are commodities, a better answer to that question can still create a superior IT partnership.
Technology Editor Peter Coffee can be reached at email@example.com.
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