Security Experts:

From APES to Bespoke Security Automated as a Service

Many of the most innovative security start-ups I come across share a common heritage - their core product evolved from a need to automate the delivery of an advanced service that had begun as a boutique or specialized consulting offering. Start-ups with this legacy tend to have bypassed the “feature looking for a problem” phase that many others struggle with and often launch their products on day-one alongside a parade of satisfied marque accounts.

While there isn’t a universal formula for success, over my years delivering boutique professional security services, I have been very lucky to encounter that product evolution several times, usually resulting from consultants intelligently automating the repetitive parts of their jobs away and creating a new class of product.

For example, around the turn of the millennium, when penetration testing came to the fore as the cutting edge in security consulting, the need for automating away the drudgery of port scans and vulnerability scanning was obvious. The first foray led to tooling that freed up consultants to focus on the “art” of bug hunting and recognition that some customers needs were satisfied with those basic capabilities. During my time at Internet Security Systems, that first automation came to be known as the “monkey scan” – because of how easy it was to run. Of course, once the marketing team got wind of customers purchasing the scanning service, a more sensible name was needed and so Automated Perimeter and Enterprise Scanner (APES) was born. From humble beginnings, that X-Force managed service line business grew and, through acquisition, its legacy continues today as part of IBM’s Managed Security Services Provider (MSSP) business. 

Automation of repetitive consulting tasks is an obvious and critical element, but so too is the need to ensure consistency and exhaustive completion of delivery. Along my own journey I’ve seen former colleagues spawn companies such as SPI Dynamics and PortSwigger Web Security (i.e. Burp Proxy) to bring to market new web application security testing tools, Continuum Security SL to solve SDLC-based threat modelling and risk management challenges, Endgame to kickstart the nation-state threat intelligence market, and AttackIQ to construct and define the Attack and Breach Simulation category – all springing from the imagination of talented consultants looking to make life just a little bit easier.

To understand what the next innovative security technology will be, we should look closely at the premium service offerings from specialized services boutique consulting companies and pay attention to those services that have a documented and repeatable methodology. While many young specialist service lines may present themselves as more “art” than “science” – the turning point comes with the development and enforcement of a standardized methodology.

A service methodology ensures consistency of delivery. Consistency means that the differentiated elements of the service can be, or must be, repeatable. If they are repeatable, then they almost always can be automated. If key elements of the service are automatable, then they can be productized. 

The depth of service that automation can deliver roughly defines whether the product will be most effectively delivered as a managed security service, a self-service SaaS offering, or a stand-alone product.

In the past, that evolution from boutique consulting service to top-right corner market leading product has taken a few years – typically three years for productization and market awareness, then another three to five before analysts label and assign a market segment. I anticipate that more consulting services will mature into products and the overall pace will increase over coming years because public cloud and AI are rapidly accelerating the gestation of these products. 

Just as many of the most innovative companies launch as cloud-native, security consultants have similarly embraced and applied their expertise in cloud environments. Consultants were often constraint bound by their clients’ hardware and physical locations. Now, when consultants need to automate repetitive tasks (e.g. enumerating APIs, fuzzing payloads, etc.) or to test a hypothesis, they already have the tools in front of them – with no energy lost in applying them. This greatly shortens the time needed to prototype new cross-client solution sets and capabilities.

But automation will only go so far. A successful product needs to capture and distill the expertise and experience that a specialist consultant applies when interpreting the output of all those automated tasks. This is where advances in AI are accelerating the product creation process and transforming managed services businesses.

Off-the-shelf AI libraries and cloud services are allowing innovators to move from linear content creation modes (e.g., each threat requires a unique signature) and decades-old if-then-else logic to training classifier systems capable of identifying and labeling swathes of the problem space they are seeking to solve, and teaching systems to learn new responses directly from the actions the consultants  are already undertaking to solve their customers’ problems.

In my time as a CISO for organizations that often required security consulting expertise, I’ve engaged in reviewing the methodology that consultants will be applying to my systems. Lack of a detailed methodology will inevitably lead to inconsistent results and lack of repeatability, the death knell of compliance. When reviewing a proposed methodology, a CISO should also ask about the automation process framework and whether those automated tasks can be separated from consultant billing. This could possibly reduce overall job costs, but also prompts your consulting partners to accelerate an important services transition into a more versatile product.

For my former consulting brethren, take a critical look at the innovative services you are delivering. Stop playing the “art” card and instead focus on the detailed methodology that’ll promote repeatability and confidence in your service. From there, invest time in applying the resources of public cloud to bring automation, scalability, and AI to solving the given problem as a platform for all customers – past, present, and future.

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Gunter Ollmann is currently the CSO of Microsoft’s Cloud and AI Security division. He is a seasoned information security leader who has defined and trailblazed new security markets through his work with globally recognized companies, including Microsoft and IBM X-Force, and startups, including IOActive and Damballa. As a seasoned C-level executive and technologist, Mr. Ollmann has been instrumental in several dozen M&A deals (as acqui-hire, acquirer, consultant, or adviser) ranging from tens-of-millions to billion dollar transactions.