The Importance of Proper Measurement in Enterprise IT Management: Lessons from Cloud Deployments

Peter Drucker once said, “You cannot manage what you cannot measure.” This quote is applicable in many aspects of technology development and business management. Neglecting measurement often leads to problems. Another relevant saying is “Lies, damned lies, and statistics.” The importance of what we measure and how we measure it cannot be overstated when using data to manage complex systems.

In enterprise IT, endpoint management systems are often touted as the source of truth for the environment, but this is misleading. They measure the intended state of the devices, not their actual state. In other words, they track what they believe they have done, rather than whether the change was correctly and successfully deployed. This might seem similar or sufficient, but it is not. Endpoint systems have many different software and settings that can interact in unexpected ways, making the data they provide nearly useless for risk assessment, according to most security professionals.

As for EDR systems, I would argue that they are simply advanced anti-viruses. They try to protect the operating system which is largely intractable. give the enterprise visibility to attacks and infections, while providing minimal tools for a response. To be clear EDR is valuable, but its overhead is high and it is not designed for device intelligence or observability; its purpose is detection and response.

If enterprises had proper investments in observability, they could discover outages before users report them. They could use the intelligence about the state and usage of their devices to proactively defend and isolate their assets, turning what has been a reactive and inaccurate dataset into a tool to protect their networks and improve user productivity.

There is a lot to learn from Cloud deployments when looking at how to solve these problems. For example, unlike most IT departments, cloud assets are heavily instrumented with logs being centralized, with dashboards reporting real-time uptime and health. There is an entire market of solutions focused on enabling this visibility, just consider how many log aggregation and analytics offerings such as Stackdriver, CloudWatch, and New Relic exist. 

Additionally, these assets typically have cross-platform machine identities that are used to facilitate security domain separation, and interestingly these identities are increasingly using hardware-backed keys to secure those credentials. These credentials are also used to help each endpoint in those deployments achieve some basic level of self-protection, where the credentials used by these assets will capture the posture of the machines and the peers they interact with, particularly when crossing security domains and enforcing policy based on these interactions.

I believe that over the next decade, enterprise IT deployments will increasingly resemble cloud deployments, with a focus on zero-trust design patterns. However, for that to happen there are product gaps that will need to be filled. For example, there is no turnkey solution for desktop state observability with structured data that can be used for real-time policy decisions. The big tech companies have built these solutions for their own deployments but there is nothing turnkey in the market that addresses this need. Then there is the issue of how to authenticate the device and its state. There are lots of pieces in this area but no solutions. If you are going to use the observed device state for the policy you also have to worry about the validity of the associated data, while this is not possible in existing systems to totally solve this problem there are lots of things that can be done to make data more reliable.

Finally, as we see this evolution, there is a need to rethink the way enterprises approach identity. It will become an alternative to Active Directory. No security practitioner would design their source of truth in the enterprise in the same way as Active Directory is today.

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