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Don't let your networks speak to strangers

Devices are invading the workplace

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Desktop Run a scan over any company network and you will probably be surprised by what has been connected to it. Staff can be very creative, plugging in everything from printers to tablet devices to departmental servers and network-attached storage devices.

They are not circumventing IT policies either, or so they think – just deploying the tools they need to do their jobs. Tablets and smartphones in particular are frequently connected to intranets and document stores.

It is not a new trend. This has been happening since the first desktop PC sneaked into an office on a departmental purchase order, ready to run Lotus 123 and save time delivering those pesky TPS reports to avoid the boss leaning over a cubicle wall and asking someone to come in over the weekend.

Leaky vessels

There are risks. User-provided hardware could easily be a route for data to leak out of a network. That’s why system administrators run regular audits to track down rogue hardware or use tools such as network access protection to quarantine it.

Active Directory helps police computer connections, but phones and other devices are harder to control.

At home they are using the latest MacBook or a Windows 7 multimedia gaming PC

Today’s users are increasingly likely to bring in their own hardware. After all, extended desktop lifecycles often leave them working on Pentium 4 hardware running Windows XP, while at home they are using the latest MacBook or a Windows 7 multimedia gaming PC with one of Intel’s latest Core i7 processors.

They want something more capable, even if budgets offer no prospect of getting new hardware soon. Technologies such as Windows Thin PC and RemoteFX can give them the Windows 7 experience on older hardware, and are well worth considering if you want to eke out PC lifespans.

Isolation ward

So how can businesses manage user expectations and how can they control the hardware being added to their networks? It’s something that today's convergence of several IT industry trends has made a lot easier to deal with.

First, the shift from device-centric to information-centric security models makes it easier to partition data so it doesn’t leak from your servers.

Policy-based security models prevent unmanaged devices from connecting to data sources (which also makes it less attractive for users to bring them into the office), and encrypted storage can prevent unauthorised connections.

That means user-provided hardware can’t connect to sensitive data. Security is still a problem, however, so divert all machines into quarantined network-attached storage until they are running anti-malware software and meet a baseline standard for system updates.

If users persist in connecting their own PCs to your network, you can take advantage of the same managed desktop techniques used to support home workers and temporary staff: virtual desktops with access to separate virtual LANs.

Tools like Microsoft’s System Center Configuration Manager are an important part of the equation, as they allow you to audit systems connected to your network – especially to wireless devices that support Exchange ActiveSync (EAS).

Nothing personal

Managing other devices is harder but enforcing EAS policies can reduce risk, as long as the devices in question support the policies they are accepting.

Users will be able to access secure IT infrastructure from their virtual desktops, while their personal applications and internet browsing are done on a low-security virtual network not connected to core business systems.

It’s an approach that requires more thought but it means that staff bringing in tablet devices or WiFi smartphones can use their untrusted devices alongside trusted hardware and trusted virtual desktops. ®

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