Chip-maker takes message control

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California-based company Kingston Technology recognized the security problems caused by the increased use of IM by its employees, so it took positive action to allow them to utilise the tool securely. John Sterlicchi reports

Growing from a two-employee startup back in 1987 to an approximately $2 billion conglomerate today, Kingston Technology has successfully developed and manufactured products at the leading-edge of memory module technology.

Whether those products are ultra-low latency modules that go into super-fast computers sold to avid gamers, or flash memory with the world's only lifetime warranty, Kingston now has a catalog with more than 2,000 offerings for a huge array of customers.

Kingston's employees have realized that the need for speed not only drives the memory business, but also creates a business advantage when it comes to communicating with their customers, colleagues and suppliers.

Based out of the headquarters in California, employees began using, over the corporate network, public IM clients such as AOL, Yahoo! and MSN to talk to their contacts – sending shivers down the spines of security-conscious systems administrators. Salespeople were messaging customers, purchasing agents were messaging suppliers, and company engineers were messaging their manufacturing colleagues.

IM rapidly grew in popularity at Kingston, just as it did at thousands of businesses around the globe. The stressful news for security folks is that it is certain that IM is going to become much more popular when the Holy Grail of interoperability between the various messaging systems becomes a fact with the launch of Microsoft's Live Communication Server 2005 later this year.

The launch will provide the first chance for businesses "to look at IM as something that can translate business needs out to a huge network of consumers," says Nate Root, a senior analyst with Forrester Research.

Kingston's security people were worried about IM well before interoperability was thought possible. According to Tom Park, a systems administrator at Kingston, the company's IT department was seriously nervous about the security implications. Administrators managed to control who had access to IM, but not the type of information going across the network.

"IM was like a security magnet for the administrator who handled our firewall. He had to close off all the ports in order to restrict access to IM," says Park.

Kingston began looking at products to solve the security headache, but allow users to increase the usage of IM. Eventually, it settled on Akonix L7 Enterprise, which is a proxy gateway deployed at the network perimeter to manage access to IM while protecting against various vulnerabilities.

Akonix L7 supports the usual IM suspects, with optional connectors to integrate enterprise IM traffic from IBM Lotus Messaging, Microsoft Office Live Communications Server and Reuters. That flexibility appealed to Kingston.

"It seemed a good fit for us because it allowed us to offer users the choice of whichever client they wanted to use, while at the same time we could monitor the traffic, restrict file transfer and secure the virus protection on it," says Park. There was also the problem of the company's confidential information going backwards and forwards.

But Akonix L7 has other features that appealed to Kingston. The IT department's management was impressed by the reporting capabilities, says Park. The software generates a detailed report covering the plethora of problems that any business could face.

For instance, the reports identify the different types of clients that are being used, how many messages are being sent, how many files are being transferred, and other valuable statistics for evaluating an organization's exposure and developing policy recommendations. "We can even get summaries of conversations," says Park.

With set-up and deployment going smoothly, Kingston is very satisfied with its decision to go with Akonix. Park and his colleagues, though, are looking forward to an upcoming feature that will allow secure IM conferencing.

That just leaves Kingston with one problem – trying to keep quiet the fact that they have secure IM capability. The company has around 150 Akonix users and the system scales up to 10,000 users. The not-so-good news is the per-user license fee, "We don't want the entire company demanding it," jokes Park.

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