The changing nature of IT security: Bryan Doerr, CEO at Observable Networks

Bryan Doerr has been involved with tech companies for decades, most recently leaving Savvis/Century Link as their CTO before agreeing help bootstrap Observable Networks. I asked him to reflect back on his career and where the infosec industry is headed in general. “There is a lot of security industry maturation still to come, a lot of wood left to chop,” he told me in a phone interview last week. “While there are still some pockets of maturity here and there, they usually are only found with the largest companies who can afford it.”

Looking back more than a decade, the biggest change has been being able to deliver security as a subscription service, he said. “First we had pre-built security appliances, but lately we have seen managed detection and response services,” such as what his company delivers. “And it isn’t just a change in how protection is delivered, but how the subscription service can be more affordable for mid-market customers.”

Another big change is how end user customers finally are getting some benefit from sharing threat intelligence. “No one wanted to talk about where or how they were attacked and share these specifics with anyone else,” he said. This intelligence sharing has made the subscription service vendors more potent and compelling and has boosted the ability to respond effectively to threats.

“Ten years ago security was built on a simple idea: that we know about our attackers and threats, and through some means we could prevent those bad guys from getting inside our networks. Back then, we had a limited number of threats, so we could more readily recognize and block them. That is so far from where we are today. The fundamental nature of what is a threat and how attacks use technology has changed completely. The idea of tracking attack signatures makes a lot less sense when every attack is unique.”

Doerr agrees that the days of the perimeter being the sole point of defense are also long over. As an example, he points out the recent IoT botnet attacks.

One benefit from the last decade has been the move towards increasing virtualization. “This absolutely was a positive influence, and helped us to better design and operate more secure systems and more complex infrastructure,” he said. Before virtualization, we had too many different fiefdoms dedicated to particular circumstances. Each one had different configurations and staffs who were maintaining them. All of that variation left us vulnerable.”

But with virtual machines, “a lot of automation has been brought to bear to keep a consistent environment running. That means we can provision VMs, kill them off, and recreate them easily. This makes it more efficient to scale up and down and we don’t have to spend our time patching systems.”

Another issue is the nature of modern network traffic. “Our networks are becoming increasingly encrypted, we can’t even see what is going on over the wire and view the payloads, and this adds another layer of difficulty. Right now less than half of all traffic is encrypted, but it won’t be long before it becomes 100%. We won’t be able to readily examine any of this traffic, which will make networks harder to defend and detect exploits.”

When he was at Savvis, one memorable experience was upgrading one of their data centers. Thanks to a routing bug the entire data center couldn’t come back online. “We tripped over it on a Saturday, and didn’t immediately understand what we were doing. It was easy to miss a single use case that caused the problem. That was a humbling experience and gave me an appreciation of the magnitude of the business that we had running. You don’t feel it until something terrible happens and you see how significant these outages are.” The situation drove home the point that he needed to stay in touch with his technology and understand that it is not just an abstraction, but also a very real entity.

I asked him who had the better job, the CTO or the CIO? He was firmly behind the CTO position. “CTOs will have jobs for forever, because they help organizations understand the evolution of technology and anticipate the direction of that evolution. The CIOs still have some soul searching to do.”

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