Removing tech from the discussion



A recent customer situation which resulted in the renewal of an existing customer’s ERP contract, made me think about why customers come to us. We signed a huge tech deal with a client but we hardly spoke about technology. In short, it got me thinking about how we work with clients. We are a technology company, but people come to us for more than just tech.

Understanding our clients

The first thing that comes to my mind is that we understand our clients. We understand their business and how their supply chain works. To be able to provide the best service, it’s fundamental that we fully grasp their inner workings. From that understanding, we then build close relationships, so that they can be confident that we are there for them; to support them in every step of the journey.

Guide, help and advise our clients every step of the way

As specialist application hosting providers, at C24 we understand that implementing ERP systems correctly is critical within a business. We get that. The ERP system is often the pillar on which most organisations are built; it is fundamental to success and a business cannot run without it. It underpins everything.

When an ERP deployment goes wrong, it affects the business as a whole: supplier payments can’t be made on time or even made at all, invoices go to the wrong people, product manufacturing is affected by delays; and confusion and mistakes become the two main players. In short, all operations of a business can be compromised.

Getting an ERP project wrong can create huge issues for clients’ own customers and suppliers, ultimately leading to customer dissatisfaction. We get it and we know what it takes to make ERP implementations risk free and secure. We know how to make the process of migrating to a new ERP, or having an ERP platform installed for the first time, as painless as possible.

Our expertise in deploying ERP solutions is vast, and because of that we can help businesses to choose the right ERP solution for them. For example, not long ago, we created an ebook about Hybrid ERP (1) and developed a list of 9 things to know about Hybrid ERP, where we explored the ways in which cloud is disrupting the traditional approach to ERP deployment (2). We don’t just deploy ERP, we talk about it, we research it, we study and we write about it. At C24, we partner closely with ERP integrators to deliver the hosting and underpinning infrastructure most suitable to our clients’ existing IT environment and operations. When everything is set up and running, we don’t just disappear from the face of the Earth, we are always available and ready to guide, help and advise whenever needed. We could say we are a ‘partner for life’.

The key to it all

All of this thinking makes me realise once more how important relationships are. If businesses can’t build close relationships with their clients based firstly and foremost on trust, both parties lose. Without trust, and a commitment to truthfully understanding our clients’ needs, we won’t be able to keep that relationship going for very long. Good tech is in fact the bare minimum. Relationships are the key that take that technology to the next level.

Moreover, when you win a contract, it is you against a number of other suppliers. However, when you renew a contract, it is you against the world. You have to prove why you are still the best choice for your customer. Renewal is about the relationship you have built and continue building with your client; it is about understanding them, NOT the tech you provide. It is about strengthening that relationship time after time.

As I said at the beginning of this reminiscence piece, we recently signed a huge tech deal but we hardly spoke about technology. This tells you a lot about who we are and how we like to do business.



Westfield Malls: How Connected Glass & Electronic Windows Engage Shoppers

Courtney Lapin talks about the power of digital interactions in retail environments

PSFK was privileged to have Courtney Lapin speak at our Future of Retail Event in San Francisco. As the Head of Retail Partnerships for Westfield Labs – the innovation arm of Westfield Malls – Lapin shared how new technologies in malls are helping online brands engage with customers in real world settings.

Great presentation – for more details please visit


To get a sense of where the PCI Data Security Standard (DSS) is heading, it helps to take a look beyond the actual language in the requirements. In August, PCI published a DSS 3.0 best practices document that provided additional context for the 12 DSS requirements and their almost 300 sub-controls. It’s well worth looking at. The key point is that PCI compliance is not a project you do once a year just for the official assessments.

The best practice is for DSS compliance to be a continual process: the controls should be well-integrated into daily IT operations and they should be monitored.

Hold that thought.

Clear and Present Dangers

One criticism of DSS is that it doesn’t take into account real-world threats. There’s some truth to this, though, the standard has addressed the most common threats at least since version 2.0—these are the injection style attacks we’ve written about.

In Requirement 6, “develop and maintain secure systems and applications,” there are sub-controls devoted to SQL and OS injection (6.5.1), buffer overflows (6.5.2), cross-site scripting (6.5.7), and cryptographic storage vulnerabilities (6.5.3)—think Pass the Hash. By my count, they’ve covered all the major bases—with one exception, which I’ll get to below.

The deeper problems are that these checks aren’t done on a more regular basis—as part of “business as usual”—and the official standard is not clear about what constitutes an adequate sample size when testing.

While it’s a PCI best practice to perform automated scanning for vulnerabilities and try to cover every port, file, URL, etc., it may not be practical in many scenarios, especially for large enterprises. Companies will then have to conduct a more selective testing regiment.

If you can’t test it all, then what constitutes an adequate sample?

This question is taken up in some detail in the PCI best practices. The answer they give is that the “samples must be sufficiently large to provide assurance that controls are implemented as expected.” Fair enough.

The other criteria that’s supposed to inform the sampling decision is an organization’s own risk profile.

Content at Risk

In other words, companies are supposed to know where cardholder data is located at all times, minimize what’s stored if possible, and make sure it’s protected. This information then should guide IT in deciding those apps and software on which to focus the testing efforts.

Not only should testing be performed more frequently, it’s also critical to have a current inventory, according to PCI, of the data that’s potentially hackable—let’s call it data at risk—and users who have access.

For Metadata Era readers, this is basically the Varonis “know your data” mantra. It becomes even more important because of a new attack vector that has not (yet) been directly addressed by PCI DSS. I’m referring to phishing and social engineering, which has been implicated in at least one of the major retail incidents in the last year.

Unlike the older style of injection attacks that targeted web and other back-end servers, phishing now opens the potential entry points to include every user’s desktop or laptop.

Effectively, any employee receiving a mail—an intern or the CEO­­—is at risk. Phishing obviously increases the chances of hackers getting inside and therefore raises the stakes for knowing and monitoring your data at all times, not just once a year.

Wearable Quadcopter Drone Makes for Next-Level Selfies

Nixie, the work of team leader Christoph Kohstall, project manager Jelena Jovanovic, and team member Michael Niedermayr, is a flexible, lightweight quadcopter designed to be worn on the wrist until needed. As Kohstall explains in the project’s finalist introduction video, “you should be able, with a gesture, to tell the quadcopter to unfold. Then, it’s going to take off from your wrist,” and, with guidance from its Intel Edison chip, “it knows where you are, it turns around, [and it] takes a picture of you.” When the user is satisfied with the shoot, Kohstall adds, the gadget “comes back; you can catch it from the air, and put it back on your wrist.”

A range of camera-equipped quadcopters have been on the market for some time, but Kohstall realized, with the help of his team, that the next step toward convenience and an improved user experience would be making a quadcopter drone wearable. In the team’s videoed interview, Jovanovic remembers early brainstorming moments:

Christoph came over one day, and he said, ‘I have a new idea for a quapcopter. And he looked at me with this mischievous grin, and he said, ‘I want to make your quapcopter wearable.’ And I thought, what?

The other wearable finalist projects include an “emotional prosthesis” gadget, an open (source) bionic hand and even an infant-monitoring chip called Babyguard. The ten teams of young entrepreneurs and developers selected as finalists are now developing their proposals into working, marketable prototypes with Intel’s help. Winners will be announced during the project’s final event on Nov. 2 and 3, with just one team claiming top honors and the $500,000 Make It Wearable Grand Prize.

Wearable Quadcopter Drone Makes for Next-Level Selfies


Steve Fingerhut is a VP of Marketing at SanDisk.  In his inaugural guest blog post for the Metadata Era, Steve discusses how enhancing existing server investments with solid-state memory can speed up Big Data analytics while keeping costs in check.

Metadata readers know better than others that we’re living in an era of data- massive data generated by web transactions, our mobile devices, social media and even our refrigerators and cars. The numbers are stunning. Data is growing at dizzying exponential rates: 90% of the world’s data was created over the last 2 years alone, and by 2020 data will increase by 4,300%

The majority of data produced today is termed ‘Unstructured Data’, which is data that does not fit well into traditional relational database systems.

This category usually includes emails, word documents, PDFs, images, and now social media. To give you a glimpse of how much unstructured data we’re generating: every minute, 100 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube, and more than 100 Billion Google searches are done every month. But what do we do with all of this data?

Analytic Apps Crave Big Data

The giants of the web have long used data as a tool to help them understand customer behavior. For example, Ebay produces 50TB of machine-generated data every day(!), collecting and recording user actions to understand how they interact with their website.

By analyzing data in their focus area, businesses can respond to patterns and make needed changes to improve sales, achieve higher engagement rates, enhance safety or help guide their overall business strategy.

Big Data is no longer just a tool for these web giants. Collecting, analyzing and utilizing data is critical for businesses of any size to remain competitive, and as such, businesses are collecting more data.

When it comes to Big Data, bigger is better. Analytics that are meant to forecast future probabilities (predictive analytics) become far more accurate when increasing data-set size to a massive scale. So companies are expanding projects to help their big data grow even bigger.

Research shows that companies with massive investments in Big Data projects to mine data for insights, are not only generating excess returns but are also gaining competitive advantages. So it’s no wonder data is becoming the most precious commodity of organizations today.

Extending Memory

For data center managers who need to contend with the growth of business data, finding the infrastructure to support storing, archiving, accessing, and processing these huge data sets has become one of the biggest concerns for organizations, and imparts great challenges.

One approach is to divide- and-conquer the problem by distributing the data to separate servers with idle CPU capacity and storage resources. Having many computing units operating in parallel as, say, part of a Map-Reduce platform, is one way—though complex— to handle the problem.

Another idea is to squeeze more performance out of existing computing elements. For many kinds of Big Data applications, gigabytes of data points often have to be manipulated at a single time—for example, in complex statistical operations.

It’s far faster (by orders of magnitude) to have the data in memory at the time it’s needed instead of accessing it from disk storage. But it’s often not feasible to do this for all but the most powerful (and expensive) high-end servers with their very large memory spaces.

An effective route to contend with these challenges is to use SSDs or flash-based disk drives for this task. SSDs have the same type of memory found in mobile devices and cameras, but they’ve been expanded and customized to take care of far larger capacities and data center reliability. Would you be surprised to learn that the big web giants (like Amazon, Facebook and Dropbox) have long moved to include flash-based Solid State Drives in their storage infrastructure?

As such, SSDs deliver far superior performance than legacy storage– 100x that of old-fashioned hard drives. Fitted with SSDs, even standard servers can sort and crunch huge amounts of data without the much-feared “disk penalty”— losing valuable time through seeking and accessing data blocks from a drive’s magnetic media.

Other benefits: without any mechanical parts, companies can eliminate sudden, unpredictable disk failure from their list of risks!

A Real Added Value

But there is more to that. You might be wondering what the cost impact of flash is, and if your organization can afford implementing SSDs.  I actually think that you can’t afford not to, and let me explain why.

As we look at Big Data and analytics, applications are not only coping with huge data sets, but also data from multiple data sources, often requiring tens of thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of operations per second (IOPS) for each workload.

To realize such high level performance with traditional drives, IT managers have had to ‘stitch together’ a huge pile of hard drives to jointly supply the needed IOPS. But bringing together so many drives not only generates complexities and additional points of failure, it also means managing and paying for more racks, networking, more electricity to power the infrastructure, more cooling costs and more floor space to pay for! As SSDs deliver 100x performance, you will require far less hardware to analyze and perform complex operations, which translates to cost savings both on infrastructure and operation.

Let me add some numbers to support my claims. Recently, we conducted a test using Hadoop, a Big Data framework used for large-scale data processing. We compared the use of hard drives vs. solid-state drives to see not only how much performance gains SSDs can deliver, but also to calculate their impact on costs.  As you may have already guessed, SSDs came out winning big on both ends. We saw 32% performance improvement using 1 terabyte dataset and better yet, a 22%-53% cost reduction, depending on the workload’s pattern of access to the storage.

Getting the Job Done Right

When aiming at optimizing Big Data analytics, there’s still a larger point to be made. It takes two elements to get the job done—a combination of hardware advances—SSDs, for example—as well as smart software. Companies will need both to contend with the oncoming data tsunami and ensure they can make the most of their analytics to remain competitive.

Big data and the rise of augmented intelligence


I’m always a little surprised by the reaction from customers regarding off-site storage services.  It goes something like, “Well, the price is so good, that I don’t really need to know anything else.”  From a pure accounting standpoint, I do see their point.

As a company goes down the road of evaluating low-cost backup and disaster recovery service providers, they should stop and “read the fine manual” as we say in IT: in this case, it’s the small print contained in the Terms of Service. I’ve looked at more than a few of these agreements and here are three key points that you should keep in mind:

1. Security Is Ultimately Your Responsibility

You’ll often see language in the ToS that says “they take security seriously” and “it’s very important”, but there’s additional legalese that states the providers can’t be held liable for any damages as result of data loss.

In fact, some of the ToS have a clause that explicitly says you are responsible for the security of your account. Yes, they will encrypt the data, and you may be given the option to hold the security keys. In a very strong sense, the security hot potato remains with you even though they have the data. When calculating the true costs and risks of these services, keep that in mind.

2.  Two-Factor Authentication?

As Metadata Era readers, you’re no doubt wondering about two-factor authentication. As a kind of a virtual commercial landlord, these services hold data for lots of businesses, so you might expect building  security would be tight—“show me your badge”.  After all, these backup services are a magnet for hackers.

I didn’t see two-factor authentication listed as a standard part of the packages of the cloud providers I looked at. However, there are third-party services available that can provide out-of-band authentication through a separate logon solution, but at an extra cost.  And you’ll have to contract separately with them.

3.  Data Availability

You store your data in the cloud with these companies, so you’d expect some promise that the data will be there when you need it.  Of course, on the public Intertoobz, there are limits to what they can be responsible for. Typically there are clauses in the ToS that exclude the digital equivalent of acts of nature—e.g., DoS attacks.

Outside unusual events, these back-up services generally don’t even provide a likelihood of availability—99%, 99.9%, or pick your sigma.  And the most they’re liable for when there’s loss of data dialtone is the subscription fee.

This is not to say that you can’t get a better deal—Service Level Agreements (SLAs) that compensate when certain metrics aren’t met—but for low-price, one-size-fits-all bit lockers, there is usually no or limited opportunity to negotiate.


If you already have an outsourced data backup or disaster recovery solution in place with a sensible SLA and you can truly estimate the cost savings, and you’re getting a blue-light deal, then more power to you.

However, for everyone else, a good in-house IT department using purchased archiving or transfer solutions can offer custom security solutions and high-availability, along with guaranteed accountability.

Authentication Lessons from the Magic Kingdom: A Closer Look at Kerberos, Part I

The flaws in NTLM I’ve been writing about might lead you to believe that highly-secure authentication in a distributed environment is beyond the reach of mankind. Thankfully, resistance against hackers is not futile. An advanced civilization, MIT researchers in the 1980s to be exact, developed open-source Kerberos authentication software, which has stood the test of time and provides a highly-secure solution.

How good is Kerberos? Even Microsoft recognizes it as superior and openly recommendsand supports it—albeit through their own version. The Kerberos protocol is more complicated than NTLM and harder to implement but worth the effort.

It’s also quite difficult to explain in a blog post. Kerberos involves complex interactions in which “tickets” or tokens are handed over by clients to various guardian servers. Faced with having to discuss Kerberos using all the usual protocol diagrams (seeWikipedia if you must), I decided to look for a better approach.

While I’ve no proof of this, it’s possible that the Kerberos authors may have been inspired by a real-world authentication systems used in theme parks—perhaps even looking at Disney World.

The General Admission Ticket (Kerberos’s Ticket Granting Ticket)

I haven’t been to the Magic Kingdom in a good long time, but I do remember an overall admission “passport” that allowed one to enter the park but also included tickets for individual rides—by the way, you can read more about Disney ticketing here.

Kerberos has a similar general admission concept. Unlike NTLM, user and client apps have to interact with what’s called a key distribution center (KDC), and initially the logon component, before they can even authenticate with and use individual services.

You can think of the front gate at Disney World, where you purchase the passport and the first round of authentication checks are made, as the Kerberos KDC logon service, and the Disney passport as what Kerberos refers to as the Ticket Granting Ticket or TGT.

As I recall, the passport lets you gain access to some of the rides, but then for the really good ones—say Pirates of the Caribbean—you’d have to pull out the individual tickets. So once in the park, the passport booklet always authenticates you as someone who has paid the fee to get in, thereby allowing Disney customers to use the individual ride tickets or purchase additional ones as well.

It Takes Three to Authenticate

NTLM authentication provides a binary relationship between a user and a server with no central authentication authority.  Perhaps more like a carnival where you show generic tickets—typically easy to forge!—directly to the ride attendant.

Kerberos, though, introduces a third component, the KDC. By the way, Kerberos refers to a mythological three-headed hound that guards the entrance to the underworld—we’re talking one tough guard doggy.

In the physical world, a complex administrative process is required to validate a document—theme part ticket, passport, driver’s license, etc.—as belonging to the holder and also making the paperwork difficult to duplicate. Perhaps not surprisingly, there’s similar complexity in issuing Kerberos’s TGT.

Here’s how it works.

Like NTLM, Kerberos also uses passwords and other IDs indirectly as keys to encrypt certain information. To start the authentication process, the Kerberos client sends basic identity data—user name and IP address—to the KDC. The KDC logon component than validates this against its internal database of users, and prepares the TGT—the digital version of the Disney passport.

The KDC first generates a random session ID. It uses that as a key to encrypt the identifying information sent by the client along with the session ID and some time stamp data. This forms the TGT. To say it another way, the TGT contains some unique data about the user along with the key that is then used to encrypt the whole shebang.

For this whole thing to work, the client needs the session ID.  But, of course, you can’t pass this as plain text, so the session ID is itself encrypted with, what else, but the user’s password or more precisely the hash of the password.  And then the two encrypted chunks of data are sent back to the user: the encrypted session ID and the encrypted TGT.

It’s a Small Authenticated World 

For all this to work, Kerberos makes the traditional assumption that only the user and the KDC have the password—a secret shared between the two of them. The client software asks the user for a password and then applies the hash to decrypt the session ID sent back by the KDC.  The unwrapped session ID decrypts the TGT.

At this point, the Kerberos client has access to the overall IT theme park, but just as in Disney, needs to go through another process to, so to speak, ride the server.

Just stepping back a bit, we can see the beauty of the first interaction to gain the TGT. The client is authenticated since it has the hash of the user’s secret password that decrypts the session ID. The server is authenticated since it has the session ID used to encrypt the TGT.

Of course, the server side of mutual authentication generally is not an issue in theme parks—unless somehow fake Disney Worlds started popping up that were taking advantage of paying customers!

But as I pointed out last time, rogue servers are a problem with NTLM’s challenge-response protocol. Kerberos completely solves this both at initial authentication and, as we’ll see next time, in gaining access to individual IT rides.

There’s a lot to digest here. I’ll continue with the rest of the Kerberos process in the next post.




Have you been in this movie?

You’ve been working for two months on a big project to analyze widgets — sales, marketing effectiveness, whatever. The first real deliverable is a presentation. A few versions are in your team’s shared folder, a few copies have been sent via email, one is in your home folder, your designer saved an update or two in Dropbox, and the final version will go in SharePoint.

You’re getting close, so your boss is now asking you to email her the latest version every other day (she doesn’t have access to the file server from her iPad). You’ve started to receive “Your mailbox is full” messages because the presentation is 15MB.

You want to pull your hair out. In the age of self-driving cars, shouldn’t file sharing be easier than this?

Check out our new whitepaper, 4 Things You Need to Know About the Future of File Sharing, to see if this story has a happy ending.


If your company is publicly traded or if your company is private, but planning an initial public offer, SOX affects your company.

Sarbanes-Oxley compliance projects can be slow and painstaking for IT departments.  Manually identifying sensitive information and building reports detailing data access can drain resources very quickly.  Luckily, Varonis can help streamline your SOX compliance projects, saving you lots of time and money!

In particular, we ensure that access and use of sensitive and important financial information residing on file servers, Exchange, and SharePoint sites is automatically ratcheted down to business need-to-know, and that use of sensitive SOX-governed financial information is continuously monitored so that organizations have accurate and non-repudiable proof of data use and compliant behavior at all times.

Read the “How Varonis helps with SOX Compliance Brief” to learn more.