Continuous monitoring: Closer than you think

Many agencies are using a patch management tool that can be a powerful ally in the quest for continuous monitoring.

Shutterstock image: looking for code.

If you were offered free tires for your car or a tune-up, which would you take? One seems far more valuable than the other, but the answer would depend on the car's needs. If your current tires are perfectly adequate, then the tune-up for your misfiring engine would be the smarter choice.

That question simplifies the complex choices federal agencies face with the "free" assistance offered by the Department of Homeland Security for its Continuous Diagnostics and Mitigation (CDM) program.

Certainly, credit goes to DHS for bringing continuous monitoring from concept to reality and relieving budget-squeezed agencies of much of the cost burden for the transition. But how will agencies use those "free" resources from DHS? Will they choose products that fill missing gaps in their CDM migration, or could they unknowingly duplicate what they already own and end up with tires they didn't really need?

Here's one example of what could happen as agencies prepare for continuous monitoring: Federal agencies own approximately 3.6 million licenses for Microsoft System Center, a product widely deployed throughout government, most commonly to administer updates and configuration changes for "Patch Tuesday." Yet when DHS asked agencies to inventory their current technologies for continuous monitoring, they might not have realized the product does far more than manage patches.

In fact, System Center 2012 directly supports continuous monitoring and performs three of the four Phase I functions of the CDM program: hardware asset management, software asset management and configuration management. That is a notable point considering that the tool already reaches the majority of government network and endpoint devices, including Linux, iOS and other non-Microsoft platforms. By taking advantage of a product they already own and their employees are already familiar with, agencies could implement continuous monitoring more quickly than they would by introducing new products into the IT environment, which might add to unnecessary tool sprawl or, worse, duplicate what they already have.

It is not surprising that those capabilities could be overlooked as agencies plan their migration strategies. Considering the separation of duties in government -- with security on one side and day-to-day operations on another -- it can be a challenge to deploy existing technologies in a new context.

However, it is good news for budget-constrained agencies that they might have already invested in capabilities for continuous monitoring. That point wasn't lost on the members of the Senate Appropriations Commmittee's Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee, which queried top federal IT leaders in May on preventing wasteful spending and duplication and improving IT effectiveness.

"At a time of tight budgets, we cannot afford to waste funds," said Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), who led the hearing. "We should not be paying more and getting less. Agencies need IT investments that are efficient and effective, that help them complete their missions."

Therefore, it bears emphasizing that agencies should re-evaluate their CDM strategies before choosing DHS resources. They should thoroughly assess current technologies through this new lens, especially where there has been a tradition of compartmentalization.

Agencies need to document their CDM migration plans -- and not just to satisfy the inspector general. By using an agencywide approach to take advantage of tools they already own and understanding any shortcomings, agencies will have a trusted road map as they move forward. They can then avoid tactical one-off or duplicative product selections and apply DHS resources as they were intended -- to fill gaps where they are most needed and valuable.

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