The Case for Outsourced Security - Tech Learning

The Case for Outsourced Security

A popular approach to managing IT in the corporate world comes to K-12.
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When Steve Endicott, manager of technology at Lewis-Palmer School District #38 in Monument, Colo., wanted to improve security and performance on his district network, he found himself in a bind.

On the one hand, he wanted more bandwidth and content filtering. On the other, the district didn’t want to shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars on this technology, and Endicott had been given specific instructions not to break the bank.

Ultimately, Endicott turned to a familiar face: the same company who had been managing the performance of the district’s local area network. The vendor, Austin, Texas-based Trillion, came in, installed products from Cisco and others, and set up spam filtering, managed firewall, and intrusion detection services in a matter of days. Today, the company handles these services and network management for $4,600 a month.

“They came in and took care of everything, and we’ve left all of the heavy lifting up to them,” Endicott says. “What’s great is that our network is now faster and more secure than ever before.”

Trillion bills itself as a managed security service provider, or MSSP. Trillion is one of literally hundreds of MSSPs. The research organization Yankee Group predicts the revenue generated by the MSSP market will reach $3.7 billion by 2008.

After years of success in the corporate world, MSSPs are experiencing a surge in interest in education markets, too. Because they offer high functionality with little cost, managed security services make perfect sense for K–12, where security needs are plentiful and budgets are slim. What’s more, because MSSPs manage their services off site, the solutions free up educators to focus on the things they know best.

“Our solution allows educators to focus in on technology applications as opposed to worrying about the core infrastructure of their network,” says Renaye Thornburrow, director of product marketing and management at Trillion.

Technologists share a similar outlook at Farm9, an MSSP in Emeryville, Calif. From the firm’s offices overlooking San Francisco Bay, Elizabeth Breslin, vice president of sales and marketing, explains that among other services the vendor specializes in firewall management, which enables K–12 customers to keep an eye on traffic and secure the types of content that come into the district network through their firewalls.

One of the districts to sign up for this service is the Poway Unified School District in Poway, Calif. After being victimized by a hacker attack a few years ago, the district hired Farm9 to audit its IT infrastructure and assess the strengths and vulnerabilities of district networks. Charlie Garten, Poway’s executive director of educational technologies and information systems, was so impressed with the audit that he hired Farm9 to come in and manage network security on an ongoing basis.

“The Poway Unified security audit done by Farm9 has become the cornerstone of our technology expansion,” he says.

Other MSSPs offer different features. At Alvaka Networks in Huntington Beach, Calif., customers can sign up for antivirus, antispam, and antispyware services (among others). At 123Secure.net, a division of Intelligent Connections, based in Royal Oak, Mich., K–12 districts can pay a monthly $250 per-user fee for Web content filtering, as well as optional email security services.

Don Fuller, program manager at 123Secure.net, says his company deploys software-based firewalls from Check Point Software Technologies (www.checkpoint.com) at all customer sites, then runs managed security services through the firewalls from a network operation center (NOC) back in Michigan. This set-up enables the firm to manage dozens of customers across a wide geographic area, all at the same time.

“We can do everything remotely, completely eliminating the need for our customers to have security on site,” Fuller says. “For a school that’s already struggling to meet user demands, that kind of flexibility is a blessing in disguise.”

Managed security services aren’t without their pratfalls. For one thing, subscribing schools have no ownership over their security equipment, which means they have no equity in their own network defenses. Second, Fuller notes that an MSSP is only as good as its NOC—if the provider experiences a security breach on the back end, all of its customers could be affected down the line.

Still, K–12 technologists generally are excited about the option of outsourcing security. Endicott, manager of technology at Lewis-Palmer, says that by eliminating the need to hire a security administrator, his district has saved at least $65,000 with managed security services—money that has been reallocated to fund other projects.

Matt Villano is contributing editor of School CIO.

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