Feature

Digital offices layered with hacker-resistant security are selling like hot cakes

Vendors, big and small, are tweaking their products and adding layers of security to haul in gold from the WFH rush 

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Historically, cats have been known to not care a damn. So many memes and so many jokes, and now they are calmly disrupting work from home (WFH) meetings. Recently an MP in UK, John Nicholson, was upstaged by his cat Rocco’s tail during a parliamentary debate. Nicholson was making a point about subtitling children’s shows when Rocco stretched his ginger-and-white tail into the camera’s line of vision and left it there long enough to draw some laughs and go viral.

Despite cats ‘Zoombombing’ and shooting death stares at colleagues and bosses, WFH is becoming the norm. Earlier, it used to be looked down upon in the workspace, says Ashutosh Sharma, VP-research director at Forrester. It was once the last option, but not anymore. Under the post-COVID order, there is a significant rise in demand from businesses and employees for digital workspaces — which includes everything from the laptop and a secure Virtual Private Network (VPN) to a cloud that allows employees to access data and apps from anywhere —and there are companies, old and new, ready to answer this demand. “Various suppliers have become more mature,” says Sharma.

BYOB or BYOD

Digital workspaces aren’t very new, actually. For over a decade, IT companies have been using them through their BYOD or bring-your-own-device policy. Does BYOD sound suspiciously similar to BYOB, or bring your own booze, put on party invitations? You aren’t wrong. BYOD is said to have come from BYOB. Anyway, with BYOD, employees could bring their own devices and connect to the company server. The market serving this set-up is not small. It was valued at $186.09 billion in 2019 and is expected to touch $430.45 billion by 2025 globally, according to Mordor Intelligence. So, the momentum was already building towards mass adoption of digital workspaces. The pandemic is accelerating that adoption — the market for such workspaces will grow 6% in FY21, compared to 5% in FY20 — and it will require digital solutions to operate on a larger scale. That is, earlier the devices were contained inside a smaller perimeter, of a compound or a city in which the office is located. Today, the devices must be able to log in to the company resources from anywhere, even from different continents.

For US-headquartered TekMonks, COVID-19 was the perfect opportunity to launch a product that had been made for a Japanese client. The archipelago nation is vulnerable to natural disasters, and so, TekMonks’ client had tasked them with finding a business-continuity solution in 2019. It was to support people for working from home should a disaster strike. TekMonks built a digital office named Teleworkr, taking inputs even from corporate psychologists, and launched it in August 2020. “When coronavirus struck, most companies found themselves having to deal with the exact same use case,” explains Rohit Kapoor, vice president of TekMonks. Teleworkr, which is priced at Rs.1,500 (excluding taxes and customization charges) per employee, found a larger market than was earlier intended.

Teleworkr solves the challenge of secure connectivity with the help of technology called reflection. Kapoor explains, “Think of it as a mirror reflection of the work server. Through reflection, we can allow the remote worker to access and work on office applications, but not connect their home network directly to the work network. Our assumption is that their home network is not secure, thus, by using reflection we isolate it – so that the hacker can’t misuse it to hack the corporate network.”

The company is also working on Telescholr, a school-management system, for which 20 schools have already shown interest. TekMonks, located in more than seven countries servicing more than 50 clients, is not new to the India market. It has been here for six years now, selling enterprise-technology solutions such as a hybrid cloud platform called Kloudust, and an AI-based cyber defense solution called CyberWarrior. The company expects teleworking and cybersecurity to bring in 25% of their revenue over time.

Secure connection

While TekMonks found a wider adoption of their new product, at VMware India, the company’s digital-official solution called Workspace ONE has undergone a transformation. Workspace ONE is a catalogue of all the apps employees would need, which can be accessed through different platforms such as mobile phones and laptops. This is a product VMware has had for the past five years. After WFH caught on, the company added a security layer to it and has called it Workspace Security. With this new offering, priced between $60-$120, employees can view all the resources in one place, and identify threats to and vulnerabilities in their systems. Other global players like Amazon (Amazon Workspace) and Citrix Solutions (Citrix Workspace) have also been selling similar products for the past few years now in the Indian market.

Not many would admit it, but employees are increasingly using their office laptops or mobile phones to browse the internet. It could be to look up data for their next presentation or it could be to catch up on the latest season of a favourite show, how is a team head to know? Either way, security of enterprise data could be compromised. “We saw a big increase, of 40%, in consumption of internet services over enterprise-connected devices,” says Prasad Mandava, MD India and VP-engineering at Akamai Technologies, which provides cloud security solutions to remote workplace clients.

Simultaneously, he says there has been 400% rise in traffic related to malware. Putting two and two together, the company’s clients have been looking for better security measures. “We saw increased activity with our customers wanting to secure themselves, and this will continue into the future as we get into the new norm of hybrid working,” says Mandava. Their client portfolio includes Hotstar, NDTV, Malayalam Manorama, FabFurnish, Vizury, Jet Airways, HT Media and HolidayIQ.

Companies’ concern with data security has also been noticed by F5, another US-based application security firm that partners with digital workspace interface providers such as AWS to provide strengthened cloud security. Sudarshan Sivaperumal, senior security architect at F5 says that clients have moved from VPN to two-factor authentication, over the past few years. Though VPN provides a parallel online network, which is hidden from hackers, two-factor authentication adds another layer of security to it.

Two-factor authentication is basically providing a more secure gateway, since it involves more than just a single password. A user will have to complete two to three steps to get into that network. For example, apart from the password, the user may have to enter an OTP sent to a registered email ID.

At F5, Sivaperumal says that the company looks at their data security framework from three pillars. First, the ability to identify the user through the two-factor authentication. Second is end-point checks, through a certificate or software installed on the company-issued devices. This certificate or software is how a closed network, such as a company’s internal network, identifies a device before allowing it to log into the network. The third is using machine learning and AI to analyse and assess user behaviour. This is done by flagging any anomaly, such as an unusual request sent by an employee. Once it is flagged, the system triggers the two-point verification. For instance, an OTP is immediately sent to the registered email ID, to allow further transaction by the user.

Most vendors in this segment believe that a hybrid office is the future, with up to 50% of the workforce logging in from their homes. But Kapoor says that, while there is a rise in demand from companies for WFH products, the products themselves will have to develop and evolve. “Work from home leads to happier employees and lower costs (for example reduced real estate costs) for the company. However, as the current productivity decline has shown, effective work from home requires a properly designed digital office with at least common sense controls – to ensure productivity,” he says.

According to Sharma, companies are now looking for more customised products in this space. Vendors are having conversations with clients about meeting specific needs, be it for an individual person or for specific tasks such as mobility between devices. “Client companies are looking at the possibility of groups that will permanently work from home. This could be like support staff — finance and accounting or HR etc. The focus has moved from solving immediate issues to making the already deployed solutions more robust and sustainable for the longer run,” he explains.

WFH is surely here to stay, however much the cats have tried to disrupt it. Prajit Nair, director sales-end user computing, VMware India says, client companies are migrating to the cloud infrastructure at 4x the earlier pace. So vendor companies, that can tweak and secure their products and services fastest, stand to be the biggest gainers.

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