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Sysadmin blog For the past 20 years, computing resources have been available via three approaches: client/server, Software as a Service (SaaS) and thin client. Organisations typically chose one approach, and did not tend to provide services using multiple different techniques. This is changing.

In the client/server world, the bulk of the work is done on the client system. Shared resources such as printers, files and databases reside on a server. Information security was typically achieved by locking down both the client and the server, both inside the walled garden of a corporate network.

In the thin client world, the client in typically has just enough power to draw a display and send inputs back to the server. All of the processing power and information required to do the job lives at a central location; for security, the thin client keeps nothing locally.

SaaS, typically delivered through a browser, shares the load between server and client. The server does the heavy lifting, while the client carries the resource load for the user interface. Security is theoretically similar to the thin client model, and the bulk of the information and processing are done centrally.

In practice this has been a bit of a nightmare, because SaaS typically has a far larger exposed attack surface than traditional thin clients. 

The differences between client/server, thin client and SaaS have also become noticeably smaller. Increasingly, the way an application is delivered depends solely on the compute power and level of internet connectivity of the user’s device. Organisations which would have traditionally picked a single model are under pressure to provide information using more than one method at the same time. In some cases, these delivery methods have been combined to form hybrid approaches.

There’s a generation of people who have lived their lives in the shadow of the internet, and are familiar with these technologies, now entering the workforce. They are familiar with the capabilities of technology, even if they cannot configure or administer it, and they have little patience for “corporate policy,” “best practice,” “security” or usage restrictions.

Should your users be able to VPN into the corporate network from their mobile? Most mobiles today can; they can also browse the corporate network and copy files. What if the mobile is stolen – can you nuke it remotely? There are apps to create single-click shortcuts on a mobile to establish Remote Desktop Connections: another hole. Corporate SaaS applications can potentially be accessed (and cached) from any browser, anywhere. When the data is hosted with a third-party cloud provider, who owns the data and how do we guarantee there have been no leaks? So the challenge for sysadmins is no longer to deliver of applications and services within the walled garden. Instead, it is the secure delivery of all services, on any device, at any time, through any number of mediums. “Secure” is the problem. “Secure” no longer means requiring a username and a password. “Secure” means careful consideration of which access method is being used and the devices from which this method is employed.

Supporting the devices and access methods demanded by our plugged-in user base requires what El Reg’s favourite bonkers-boffinry bureau, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), calls “total information awareness.” Regardless of device, regardless of connectivity methodology, application or service used the critical questions are consistently the same: who has access to the data – when, where and from what? 

It is date(. Do you know where your data is? ®

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