OPINION: Channels need a security blanket

OPINION: Channels need a security blanket

Life in the channel isn't easy these days. Imports pegged to the US dollar are painfully on the wrong end of the stick while international vendors are packing up their bags and closing offices in droves to head home.

Consumers and businesses are spending less while closely scrutinising ways to cut back further. Even jumping on a plane to visit a customer has become not so much uneconomical as downright impossible - domestic flights are booked solid while planes fly half-empty in the US.

Yep, the Australian market is a unique place alright, even without corporate collapses and a war on terrorism. Which inevitably brings us to the issue of national security and IT's role in protecting it.

The Information Technology Association of America (ITAA), representing more than 500 IT companies, has stated that at least $US10 billion is required to ensure adequate cyber defences against terrorism. While government departments are rapidly shoring up any holes in their systems, the FBI has issued a US-wide alert to private-sector owners of critical infrastructure facilities urging them to prepare for cyber attacks.

Meanwhile, Australia is currently sitting pretty in third place on the terrorist target list with a somewhat bewildered attitude to the whole security debate. There is some talk of an IT "national guard" by the Federal Government, but critics are already pointing out logistic and coordination problems to say the very least.

The reality is that even without specific "terrorist" attacks the average Internet-connected device (ranging from servers through to your cable modem at home) will on average be probed by viruses, worms, Trojans and other sources dozens of times in a day. Just to inspire confidence, Windows computers are five times more likely to be broken into than other systems.

The HoneyNet Project ( has found that an unprotected server can be hacked in as little as 15 minutes after plugging into the Internet, making a good case for every organisation, from enterprise right down to the small business, to install firewalls and secure Internet access.

But that's only half the story. Both the good guys and the bad guys are listening to traffic on the Internet, something that's long been possible due to the distributed and cooperative nature of the paths that traffic must follow.

The bad guys are looking for passwords and company secrets.

The good guys are looking to see who you are sending e-mail to and scanning your messages (the UK, for example, is enacting new laws to make it easier to intercept traffic over the Internet).

What's more, Internet access is not the only weak spot - intranets and LANs that rely on technologies such as wireless risk snooping if they don't have a secure protocol running over them. Australian companies that don't have a virtual private network (VPN) in place between offices and remote workers are extremely exposed and sales of firewall/VPN products suggest consumers are becoming increasingly aware of this.

June 2001 figures released by IDC show 153 per cent worldwide growth in the combined firewall/VPN market.

In an Australian context, the new Privacy Act kicking in from December 21 makes it even more crucial to lock up corporate and government communications infrastructure.

Nevertheless, from where resellers stand the solution is not always apparent - everything in the IT world is getting more sophisticated and powerful while simultaneously becoming less stable and secure.

Many software systems are prone to misconfiguration (reviews on Windows XP show a number of deficiencies in security configuration) or are simply languishing without the required security patches. By the time a systems administrator sees notification of a network breach, hackers have had time to implement an attack and compromise systems. That is assuming that the installation of multiple packages on the server hasn't already broken the security - multiple applications are renowned for jostling each other's elbows without any real way of telling that the new install has disabled existing packages.

But assistance, it seems, is on the way. Purpose-built hardware security solutions are creeping back into vogue with out-of-the-box security, lower price tags and hands-free security maintenance.

By removing the minefield that often unfolds when building one's own security solutions, vendors are steering resellers through the quagmire.

Meanwhile, there are some simple things for resellers to keep in mind to help them in negotiating these dark times:

Security - choose networking vendors that solve the total security aspects of access, firewall and VPN.

Simplicity - the more complicated a solution, the more that can go wrong. That goes for both the product and the way a reseller presents options to meet customers' needs. You want products that can be quickly and simply upgraded in the field to take advantage of new security measures.

Price - don't accept being in a country that's a remote cousin of the US. Find vendors with local presence and prices pegged to the Australian dollar. Spurn "annual maintenance" charges unless they truly add value. If you can't get well under the $A1000 mark, many lucrative deals are out of your reach. Flatter channel structures are ideal in this scenario.

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