Watch out for the products that have snuck in behind your back

Danger lurks in shadow IT


The mention of shadow IT can produce beads of sweat on the brow of any knowledgeable IT staff member. For those who do not know, the term covers any company systems and services that are not procured by the IT department.

The toil and trouble of a single shadow IT occurrence can cause a headache that sticks with the company for years.

Shadow IT (referred to as ShIT) is one of the IT departments’ biggest bugbears because of the uncertainty it brings. Often implemented by well-meaning staff members, a product can sneak its way into becoming a company asset long before IT is aware of its existence.

Dark secrets

The most common way for the IT team to find out is when someone calls the help desk to ask for assistance with a mysterious product. By then it is generally too late to wind back and the ShIT has hit your plans.

It is at this stage that a bit of digging finds problems in the offending product such as incompatibility with other systems and software or general lack of security. You are stuck with getting it to work without making sacrifices to the security and integrity of your environment.

ShIT often strikes when you least expect it. Executives might ask to get emails on their new iPad because nobody has questioned what they buy or they have just bought it on their own dime. The expectation is that the IT department is there to help enable their technological experience, not get in the way of it.

Departments that kick off their own projects and sign up with a vendor because the solution meets their requirements are another common problem. Sorry, marketing guys and girls, but you seem to be the worst offenders. Maybe this is because technology helps you out so much and sometimes the IT department can't move at the pace you want.

In a previous role I have been handed a copy of Microsoft SharePoint on CD and asked to install it by the next day. There are too many reasons why that is bad to know where to even start.

The usual suspects

You can probably think of many other offenders. BYOD (bring your own device) is right up there, with the iPhone and iPad prime examples of devices that have found their way into companies via executives who want the latest and greatest.

These devices are nowadays more likely to be seen as manageable company assets, but when they first came in there was no centralised method of configuring, controlling or maintaining them.

It is surprising how far we have come in the short time since iDevices had to be activated then provisioned one by one, in the best case using a configuration utility to push settings while being physically tethered to a PC.

Another common piece of hardware that makes its way in is the employee’s own laptop – often some flavour of Apple MacBook. Getting a personal device onto your network with the appropriate licensing, software, configuration and management tools is easy when you have weeks to set it up, but it is a time sink the IT department just doesn't need.

When it comes to software, it can be a bit harder for non-IT staff to install something without IT knowing, but that doesn't stop deals going ahead. The business will need to reap the benefits of the costs they are about to pay, so the problem of fixing ShIT software falls on your shoulders.

There is also the regular occurrence of the only industry-specific software solution that meets the business's requirements. Unless you can throw a development team at it and have the luxury of time, you will be stuck with a backyarder's solution that makes a Geocities website look modern.

These pieces of software are easily identified by either having no installer at all ("just copy this CD across") or one that refers to Windows 95 as a minimum system requirement.

Menacing cloud

Cloud technology can be tricky as it has both benefits and drawbacks. When cloud services are properly thought out, planned and executed, most businesses can gain cost saving from them. On the other hand the ease of signup and use of services such as Dropbox and Yammer can be a setback for IT.

The trust factor of any free file-hosting cloud service should be checked before sending confidential or commercially sensitive documents to a third party.

The problem is these services do the basics really well so staff members can start questioning why their in-house IT can't provide the same or better. A similar solution will cost time and money to implement and meanwhile the other service is right there waiting to be used.

By the time someone posts an abusive message on the network you will be forced to fork over unbudgeted costs to fix the problem

Yammer allows anyone in the business to sign up their company's domain and invite others to use the social network with very little effort. Solutions such as these tend to grow organically within the company, due to their usefulness or to people not wanting to be left out, spreading in an unplanned fashion.

By the time someone posts an abusive message on the network and the people who have ended up running the system need it deleted, you will be forced to fork over unbudgeted costs to fix the problem.

Both Dropbox and Yammer now have paid-for business solutions but implementations should be well thought out and relevant to business requirements, not deployed in a rush to get someone out of trouble.

Come out whoever you are

Finding shadow IT can be tricky. Once identified it is already in use, and each business needs to make its own decisions on how that should be handled. Getting in early is important so you can fix the situation before the issue becomes a bigger one.

For physical devices, using a standard such as 802.1x prevents unknown devices from being able to access company resources. The CEO may have already spent the money on a new MacBook Air but it won't touch the internal network before you know about it.

A smaller business may not have the resources and hardware required to lock down its network in this way. The key here is to have automated scanning and auditing of the software and hardware on your network, alerting you to anything you should be alarmed about.

Border controls

Communication and making sure the top brass in the IT department are keeping up to date with the rest of the business are vital to stopping shadow IT.

The aim is to get wind of someone's big plan before it hatches and offer to get involved in helping to plan it out.

As with other business interactions, IT is not there to say “no” but instead to say “how can we make this work?” This could amount to a hidden “no” but then you need to offer an alternative solution that meets the business requirements.

To be clear, you can't fully keep shadow IT out of your environment. But be prepared for it and have an understanding of how the business wants to deal with its inevitable entrance.

Repair work

Since you are stuck with some of these products you didn't want you will have to work out how to live with them.

Speak to the vendor, as it is likely to have had other IT departments ask similar questions. Maybe there is an upgrade that will cost money but save time by giving you features you would expect from other solutions.

Try to leverage existing systems. For those in the Microsoft world, System Center Configuration Manager (SCCM) and Intune have some BYOD management abilities. Investigate "desired state configuration" to ensure foreign devices are configured to meet your minimum requirements.

SCCM added Mac support recently, and although the Microsoft product can perform basic management there are specialist solutions to consider for a more comprehensive solution.

Thin provisioning of key applications can offer another way out. As long as the device can accept a client for the platform of your choice, you have an easy way of getting a Windows-only program running on marketing's six-year old Mac so it can appear trendy to potential clients.

Any risks to the business that come out of shadow IT need to be raised with the executives.

Part of IT's job is to identify technical threats to the business so make sure you know what happens in your environment, and automate those painful tasks wherever you can. ®

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