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Tech Insight: IT Security's Most Time-Consuming Tasks

Picking the right tools can help save time and streamline efforts

IT security professionals are faced with countless tasks. Some require just a couple of minutes of time, while others are virtual time sinks that take away from securing IT resources. And choosing which tasks to tackle first isn't always a decision left up to the security pro.

CSOs, attacks, and administrivia all impact on security pros. The CSO, if you even have one, will want to know how your company's security program handles the latest attacks he heard about or whether you really need the product he just got cold-called about. And then there are the phishing attacks that get forwarded for investigation and the Web server logs that were filled up overnight because someone was brute-forcing directories and attempting SQL injection.

Let's not forget the countless meetings, paperwork, and reports that require inordinate amounts of time -- time that would be better spent patching systems, securing Web applications, and tightening desktop protections to fight malware.

InformationWeek's 2010 Strategic Survey provides insight into what's currently eating away at IT security professionals' time. The top three: patch management at 33 percent, malware detection and analysis at 30 percent, and incident response at 24 percent. If you're on the front lines or a C-level exec getting daily reports on security incidents in your organization, then those numbers shouldn't be surprising.

It's important to note that most of the respondents are spending the greatest portion of their time on patch management because of the shift in the threat landscape. In the past when most attacks were targeting vulnerabilities in servers, patching was easier and took less time. Patches had to be tested to be sure they didn't bring down production services, but there were typically far fewer servers than user workstations.

Now attacks are targeting the end users and their workstations. They're sourced from compromised websites, malvertisements, social networking, and phishing, greatly emphasizing the importance of patching tens, hundreds, or thousands of systems.

Taking advantage of available patch management tools can help reduce the time many security pros are spending, sometimes running around installing patches machine by machine depending on the size of the business. Some solutions are freely available but limited in what they can patch, while commercial solutions offer greater product coverage and, often, cross-platform support.

Microsoft's Windows Server Update Services is free and can be used to push patches to Windows operating systems and Microsoft Office products, but it lacks support for third-party applications. Other companies, like Secunia, BigFix, and Lumension, offer more complete solutions for patching software, such as Firefox and Adobe Acrobat Reader, across an enterprise. They also feature reporting capabilities so you know what is and isn't patched.

Ask any security pro from small businesses to large enterprises, and they will agree: Malware is out of hand. Users' workstations are getting infected because their Adobe Flash isn't updated and a malvertisement exploited a Flash vulnerability just by visiting popular websites. The increasing ineffectiveness of antivirus isn't helping, either.

Security pros are stuck trying to detect malware before it gets deep into the internal network and has access to sensitive data. Knowing some piece of malware is on a system isn't enough, though. There's a need to analyze what's there to see what credentials or data it was attempting to steal. And the C-level execs want to know whether it was part of a targeted attack.

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