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Inside McAfee's Acquisition of Skyhigh Networks

McAfee Completes Acquisition of Skyhigh Networks

On Jan. 3, McAfee completed the acquisition of Skyhigh Networks that was announced in November 2017. McAfee itself was spun out of Intel in April 2017 with the express purpose of becoming one of the world's largest pure play cybersecurity firms. The purchase of Skyhigh, a cloud access security broker (CASB), now allows McAfee to offer an integrated security solution from endpoint across networks and into the cloud.

"Today's news marks a new milestone for the future of our company in cloud," said Chris Young, McAfee's CEO. "With two industry leaders meeting under one company, we will make cybersecurity an enabler to the transformative power of our digital age. We are focused on securing customers from their devices to the cloud."

SecurityWeek talked to McAfee SVP and CTO Steve Grobman to understand the mechanics and purpose of this new, expanded, McAfee. "McAfee's strategy," he said, "is all about security from the device to the cloud, and supporting organizational defense with all the information that comes from both of those places. McAfee currently has a very strong set of technologies on the endpoint, on the devices -- but what the Skyhigh acquisition does is provide a very powerful control point in the cloud for a wide range of cloud security use cases."

McAfee LogoHe believes there are three exciting aspects to this purchase: being able to offer greater cloud visibility and control under the McAfee umbrella; the improved threat detection that will come from seeing both cloud and on-premise threats in context; and the continuing growth potential of CASBs in their own right.

The Skyhigh solution offers three primary aspects to cloud security: visibility into the cloud; control over interaction with the cloud; and greater awareness of and solutions to the threats inherent in moving into public cloud. "At the highest level," he said, "a big part of the cloud problem is just awareness of what Shadow IT services an organization is using. More often than not, people are not using shadow IT because they are malicious, but rather because it they have found a more efficient way for them to get their job done. 

"Skyhigh," he continued, "can identify the use of Shadow IT so that an organization can determine whether it's an approved and sanctioned use of cloud capabilities, and take appropriate action." This is useful. Employees can sometimes find a better solution to their work requirements than is currently available from the IT department. Simply banning Shadow IT probably would not work, but would certainly have a negative effect on employee initiative and productivity. Knowing what is being used allows the security team to analyze the risk and determine whether and to what extent a newly used cloud application should be allowed within the enterprise.

The second aspect, he continued, "is about controlling and managing access, content and methodologies for cloud services. That's either through proxies or through native cloud APIs that provide better visibility into the way that users are accessing these services." He gave the example of moving from on-prem Exchange to cloud Office 365, where the organization will need to ensure that sensitive information isn't flowing to places it shouldn't. 

"The organization might want to have different policies for what users can do when they access the cloud based on different access scenarios. For example, if employees are using a managed corporate laptop, they might have unrestricted access to O365 where they can download documents with the full versions of Word or Excel. But if they are accessing their account through their personal phone there might be a policy setting that would restrict them to only using the web interface; or requiring that if they download a document, it is wrapped in an enterprise or digital rights management control. Being able to control how the cloud is used makes it possible to minimize risk."

The third element is in identifying and solving the new risks that come with moving to the cloud. "When organizations move to the cloud, they need to be aware of all sorts of new risks that a CASB solution is able to monitor, detect and alert on," he said. He gave AWS S3 misconfigurations as an example. "There have been numerous data breaches recently involving the misconfiguration of access controls in public cloud storage. Users have inadvertently given world read access to an Amazon S3 bucket, giving anyone access to what should be protected data." Examples include the exposure of tens of thousands of potentially sensitive government files disclosed in June 2017; the personal details of 198 million American voters also disclosed in June 2017; and millions of Dow Jones customer details exposed in July 2017.

What really excites Grobman about the Skyhigh acquisition is the ability to combine and integrate visibility into cloud threats with McAfee's existing visibility into on-premise threats.

"A large part of threat detection today is not in identifying a threat from just one event, but understanding threats from multiple events chained together," Grobman said. "In order to do this effectively, you need to have visibility into events from many different sources, including both the cloud and on-prem corporate devices. This is one reason why the Skyhigh acquisition makes a lot of sense for McAfee -- it is the aggregation of looking at the information coming from both the cloud computing element of the organization as well as traditional computing resources. When you put these together you can identify a lot of threats that would be difficult to detect individually."

Now the acquisition is complete, Grobman explained that Skyhigh will largely exist as its own division within McAfee. "Rajiv Gupta, the founder and CEO of Skyhigh, will join McAfee CEO Chris Young's staff and drive the product line as its own business unit. There are a few exceptions related to back office functions, like finance and HR," he added, "but for the most part, the initial approach is for Skyhigh to be its own business unit." 

The definitive roadmap for things like branding are still being investigated. For the moment, the official McAfee announcement describes  Skyhigh as "now part of the new cloud security business unit, led by Rajiv Gupta, former Skyhigh Networks chief executive officer."

"What we're concentrating on," said Grobman, "is really building on the synergies that Skyhigh will bring to our environment; taking McAfee's world class protection technology and integrating that into Skyhigh -- being able to look at event data from both cloud sources and traditional computing and have those work together in order to give our customers a better ability to detect threats within their infrastructure. So although the Skyhigh business will be a separate business unit within McAfee, there will be lots of work to maximize the value of the solution the system can bring to both existing and new customers."

And that, of course, is another offering from the acquisition. The CASB market is still a rapidly growing and emerging area. "There are still many customers that have yet to deploy a CASB solution," said Grobman. "We are very much looking forward to the opportunity to present this technology solution -- especially in the context of McAfee's other technology -- to organizations that are not yet McAfee customers." 

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Kevin Townsend is a Senior Contributor at SecurityWeek. He has been writing about high tech issues since before the birth of Microsoft. For the last 15 years he has specialized in information security; and has had many thousands of articles published in dozens of different magazines – from The Times and the Financial Times to current and long-gone computer magazines.