How to Defend Security amid Budget Tightening: Four Approaches

The biggest threat to a company's security might not be hackers and thieves, but its own budgetary process. nCircle Vice President Elizabeth Ireland explains how to address that tough hurdle.


Many predict that 2008 will produce the tightest economic conditions since the dot-com bust at the beginning of the decade. The subprime meltdown and tightening credit markets mean most CIOs will feel the downward spiral of the economy right where it hurts-in their budgets.

Unfortunately, this also coincides with the most serious threat environment security professionals have yet faced. Hackers' tactics are becoming more targeted. Web applications are increasing in number and business importance, generating additional enterprise risk. Budgets may get tight, but the CIO's responsibility remains the same: focusing on how best to minimize risk.

Tighter budgets don't equal less attention for security. In fact, at times like these, that may be the biggest mistake. The highest levels of an organization are asking their CIOs, "How do we know we're secure?" The only way to know is by understanding the risks, the return on investment and how security not only fits into your other IT priorities but also adds to the company's bottom line. Defending the security budget is always a challenge, but here are four approaches that can help.

1. Metrics make the most compelling argument. Is your security risk going up or down over time and what is affecting it? This is baseline data that every organization needs and should monitor. If you cannot answer this clearly, realign your projects and priorities to make sure you can get this information on an ongoing basis. Every CIO should know at least three things: How vulnerable are my systems, how safely configured are my systems and are we prioritizing the security of the highest value assets to the business? Though security metrics are in the early days of development and adoption, the industry is maturing and solid measurements are available. These areas can be assessed and assigned an objective numeric score, allowing you to set your company's own risk tolerance and use that to make critical decisions about where to allocate funds. As you face increased budget scrutiny, the metrics allow you to identify-and defend as necessary-where your security priorities are, and how security and risk fit into overall ROI.

2. Compare your baseline to others in your industry. The guarded nature of security data means CIOs trying to access this type of information will have to get creative. A good place to start is the Center for Internet Security-its consensus baseline configurations can be used as a jumping-off point to identify areas of risk. Vertical industry benchmarks are an evolving area, and another source may be what you can learn from your personal relationships. Seek out others within your industry and find out what metrics they are using and what percentage of their IT budgets they are spending. Risk tolerance is specific to each organization, but there are similarities within industries that could prove helpful.

3. Learn from other areas in your company. Look to process-oriented disciplines as a proxy for the type of evolution facing security-network operations can be a good example. In the early days, the only scrutiny came if things weren't working correctly. Over the years it has matured to a level of operational metrics for uptime and performance, embedded in quarterly and annual performance goals. These metrics allow a continuous cycle of performance, measurement and improvement. In addition, network operations can provide an important lesson about single-solution economies of scale. Find solutions that work across your entire enterprise-this is the only way to get economies of scale in implementation and ensure that you get the critical, enterprisewide risk metrics you need.

4. Take steps to automate your compliance process. Are you compliant and can you routinely deliver the reports that auditors request? The economic benefits that come from doing this correctly are significant. Audit costs are directly related to how complicated it is to audit and prove the integrity of a business process, so finding a way to save the auditors' time is one of the single biggest opportunities to drive down costs. Even though your audit costs may be hitting the finance area's budget, meet with their team to understand what audits are costing you, and how the right kind of automation could lessen them. There will also certainly be time and resource savings for the security team. There isn't an exact recipe for compliance automation, so talk to your auditors, look at your environment and begin the discovery of how much time is spent preparing for and reacting to audits. If you're a company that allows your divisions to individually automate, it's time to think about taking those principles enterprisewide.

Regardless of budget conditions, you will still have to decide which projects have the biggest impact on the business. The threat environment requires that you make the absolute best decisions with your available budget by investing in the right places and getting better use of your resources. Lastly, remember that times of difficulty are often times of opportunity. Lessons learned now in the face of tighter budgets can spark valuable models of efficiency and progress for the future.

Elizabeth Ireland is a vice president for nCircle Network Security, a leading provider of agentless security risk and compliance management solutions. Ms. Ireland previously held senior management positions at Extensity and MapInfo and is a former CPA with Ernst & Young with financial and computer audit experience. She holds a BA in Business Administration, Accounting from the University of South Carolina. She can be reached at [email protected].