Tech News and Analysis

5 min read

Welcome-Back-to-the-Future Shock

This year's RSA Conference saw a strange mix of selling the future and the past — for good reason.

The show floor during the RSA Conference was a dizzying mix of vendors selling solutions ideal for a precloud world and vendors carving out new concepts. There was a bewildering list of acronyms that we knew and several we didn't. CSPMs, CWPPs, and CIEMs were joined by SSMP, CNAPP, and CDR. (Read this companion piece to learn what they mean.)

The main takeaway seemed to be "Secure the future, but don't neglect the legacy of the past" — which is surprisingly reasonable for the volatile and ephemeral world of cybersecurity. Mix that in with the global skills shortage and confusion in the world of talent and, as the title of this article says, welcome-back-to-the-future shock!

Why do we see this strange mix of selling the future and the past? Well, not every company has the same pressures and drivers, so consequently they can be at a different stage of technology transformation. Cloud natives and the growing ranks of "cloud immigrants" (those not born using the cloud but who fully embrace it) live in the 2020s. At the same time, some organizations are moving to enter the 1990s or perhaps 2000s, at least as far as IT security spending goes. People are buying their first SIEM or upgrading to a next-gen firewall, as well as trying to secure cloud-native and cloud-migrated applications and workloads. Different industry sectors have different dynamics, and this is reflected in their architectures and operations.

Back in 1970, the Boston Consulting Group created the paradigm of the four stages of product growth: question marks, stars, cash cows, and pets. The VPN market is a perfect example of the cash cow — larger than all of the cloud security markets combined but with a clearly visible end-of-life looming on the horizon. In contrast, many cloud security solution categories, such as CSPM, CIEM, and CWPP, are now firmly established as rising stars, with healthy innovation and growth being evident.

Ubiquitous Buzzwords and Hidden Gems

RSA Conference has always been about buzzword bingo. Extended detection and response (XDR) was everywhere, but the vendor offerings underneath the banner varied widely. XDR is a relatively new term, and the various analyst firms — and even individual analysts within the big firms — are arguing about what it means. This is even more true of zero trust (a phrase that also describes how many CISOs feel about vendor pitches and marketing). More mature detection and response technologies, such as endpoint detection and response (EDR) and network detection and response (NDR) are joined by cloud detection and response (CDR, which I have seen interpreted also as content disarm and reconstruction) and data detection and response (DDR). Managed detection and response (MDR) is an attempt by managed service providers to shed the reputation of simply being there to tell the customer they've been hacked, and to shift a little bit left of the crisis.

Zero trust is a term that's become overused and is losing traction — however, it's still an integral part of the security landscape. Of course, it's debatable whether zero trust truly models the way that we interact as humans in our customer and supplier relationships, but it is a useful model for cybersecurity architects and engineers trying to reduce the hazard of unintentional connectivity between systems.

And when we talk about hype in cybersecurity, there is one specter that always lurks in the corner. Machine learning spent a good few years being breathlessly abused by excited salespeople, to the point when it seemed like we should expect it to magically inoculate our applications, straighten out our insider risk problems, manage our supply chain, and serve coffee afterward. The reaction this provoked was frustrated CISOs refusing point-blank to talk to any wide-eyed evangelist of the magic box. Thankfully, machine learning and artificial intelligence now provide solid solutions ready to be put into operation. Marketing efforts are focusing on realizable, evidence-backed assertions based on customer benefits, and this is converting into solid growth.

What Did I Miss?

Despite the fact that fraud is on the rise, there weren't that many fraud detection solutions. Perhaps their absence is an indication that CISOs are turning away from the dream of the fusion solution and deciding that despite evidence of attackers using cyberattacks in fraud schemes, it's too complex to overcome the corporate politics. 

Dedicated ransomware solutions were also remarkably absent. While CISOs may recognize the benefits of solutions specifically targeted at this huge problem, they need to be able to explain to the CFO why the malware solutions that have already been paid for aren't doing the job. I think that we are not seeing the full ransomware kill chain, as several threat research organizations are identifying links between ransomware, fraud attacks, and other cyberattacks.

Data security solutions seem to be becoming a component of other solutions, such as CWPP (for cloud), or other specific verticals, such as payment solutions, healthcare, and others that have compliance-driven privacy responsibilities. This is another example of how compliance drives security investment (and therefore, engineering and product development). It may be that, as more applications become fully cloud-centric, we will be expecting this capability to be provided natively within the cloud app itself.

It is surprising that Internet of Things/operational technology (IoT/OT) solutions remain thin on the ground. One colleague of mine suggested that the "s" in "things" stands for security, and it's not hard to see the truth behind that witticism. Security has always been driven by compliance and risk, and IoT/OT is still at the stage where design engineers and managers are seeking operational availability and connectivity. 

There appears to be little driving force in investing in secure cybersecurity solutions, despite the evident threat from unfriendly foreign powers, criminal gangs, and destructive activists. As many industrial control engineers say, it's all fun and games until some noxious glowing goo eats through the floor!

What's clear from the RSA Conference is that the industry is ready to use the lessons of the past to point us toward the future.