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Telecommuters seen as weakest link in network security

As enterprise trends go, few are as likely to keep the network security guys up at night as the growth of telecommuting. According to a study released this fall by the International Telework Association & Council, the number of employees who performed any kind of work from home grew from 41.3 million in 2003 to 44.4 million in 2004.

For so-called small- to mid-sized enterprises (SMEs), the security risk created by the proliferation of telecommuters has been especially worrying. A recent survey by WatchGuard Technologies of its own customer base of businesses with 1,000 or fewer employees found that 25% of IT administrators believe that remote workers present the biggest security challenge in their organizations.

The primary problem, many of these administrators believe, is that the telecommuters simply aren't security savvy enough to protect themselves.

"Those employees are focused on getting their jobs done, as they should be,” says Steve Fallin, director of the rapid response team for WatchGuard's Live Security Service. “But for the professional responsible for keeping the network secure, it's something of a nightmare. You've taken a piece of the business and put it in someone's den, where his kids surf the Internet for skateboarding sites or search for the latest on Halo 2. And you’ve got this chaotic, unmanaged environment [the Internet] with a piece of the company network in there, and the person in charge of the keeping the private stuff and the business stuff separate… well, let's say that person's attention is somewhere else."

Moreover, telecommuters aren't really the same species of remote worker as the company road warriors, who dial in occasionally from hotels and airport hotspots. Telecommuters--or teleworkers--are working from the home office, linking to the network for long periods.

"This can give hackers more time or opportunity to infiltrate the telecommuter's system," says John Stuckey, WatchGuard marketing vice president, "and from there, access the corporate network. Securing the corporate network with a firewall but leaving teleworkers unprotected is a bit like putting a steel door on a straw hut."

Telecommuters are the weak link, says Fallin, and the best solution is to pull them out of the chain.

"What you need to do is to find a way to make that network secure without involving them," he says. "You don't want people for whom security is not a real priority involved in the equation."

WatchGuard is a Seattle-based provider of network security solutions for the SME market. The company's flagship Firebox X line is an appliance-based security solution targeted to small- to mid-sized enterprises.

Not surprisingly, Fallin sees the security appliance as the ideal solution for SMEs with remote workers needing to gain secure access to the company network.

"The problem with software firewalls is that they’re easy to screw up and they’re difficult to manage remotely," he says. "With a software firewall, there's no distance between you and the bad guys. With a hardware firewall the conflict takes place away from you, and if something were to happen, if the firewall were to break, your computer is still fine. With a software firewall, you’ve got to fix your computer to get back to normal."

Interest in appliance-based security solutions has fueled one of the few growth areas of the networking market over the past two years, according to a recent report from IT analyst firm IDC. Sales of security server appliances grew 10 percent in the second quarter, IDC says, and sales of low-end appliance servers dedicated to firewalls and virtual private networks helped bolster the industry.

According to IDC's Worldwide Quarterly Security Server Appliance Tracker, the worldwide security appliance market grew 57% in the second quarter of 2004 compared to the second quarter of 2003. Factory revenues totaled $523.4 million, which marked an additional $190 million in sales gained from 2Q03.

Interestingly, IDC has identified a new category of security appliances, called Unified Threat Management (UTM). UTMs incorporate firewall; intrusion, detection, and prevention; and gateway anti-virus features. This category of security server appliances has grown to account for 12% of the marketplace, IDC found, while firewall/VPNs have fallen from 87% of the marketplace to 70%.

"The emerging UTM security appliance market is transforming the single function appliance into one that offers multiple security features in a single platform," said Charles Kolodgy, research director at IDC, in a statement. "These appliances will be popular because they offer substantial advantages in performance, convenience, and choice to customers, resellers, and product vendors. We expect more vendors will be entering this market in the near future."

Don't expect the challenge of securing telecommuters to go away any time soon. According to a July survey of 1,078 managers by New York-based executive job service TheLadders.com, nearly 20% of executives looking for jobs paying at least six figures ranked working from home as a very important priority. Nearly 40% of those execs said they would take advantage of telecommuting if it was offered, and 34% said work-from-home flexibility was important but not a deal breaker. Only 10% declared no interest.

About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached at john@watersworks.com.

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