STW Group upgrades security to speed up YouTube, not ban it

STW Group CIO Tom Ceglarek knows it may sound strange that the company has invested in new technology to speed up YouTube – a site that’s routinely banned as a productivity-killer – but it was necessary after the company’s security infrastructure had been routinely impeding the site’s performance.

Reliance on YouTube is a natural part of the business for STW, which manages 40 advertising and marketing agencies spread throughout 12 offices around the country. For the past five years, the company has been working to consolidate its operations so it can enjoy the cost savings from a single network, single Internet gateway, and other consolidated services.

Consolidation of network traffic had pushed all of the 40 agencies onto a pair of 300Mbps Internet connections, but with a range of firewall and packet-scanning tools in place the old tools were struggling to keep up with that traffic. In turn, traffic-sensitive streams such as YouTube videos – a critical part of the marketing function – were coming through in fits and starts.

“YouTube is our single most important creative tool,” Ceglarek told CSO Australia. “But whenever we turned on packet inspection, the intrusion protection system and other tools, they would really affect the viewing experience through constant buffering. Antivirus modules would invariably slow down the traffic severely. We needed a firewall that had some grunt to it.”

After discussions with systems integrator vmtech, which was helping with STW’s infrastructure consolidation, Ceglarek began evaluating an alternative from relative security newcomer Palo Alto Networks, whose malware-sniffing technology works to identify malicious code based on its behaviour rather than its signature.

The Palo Alto Networks WildFire solution has been heavily optimised to support high-traffic environments, and in early tests STW found that the technology lived up to its promise: wire-speed filtering was not only more effective than the old firewalls and antivirus scanners, but was able to keep up with the 600Mbps combined bandwidth across the company’s Internet links.

Throttling on YouTube has now been eased, with significantly improved performance over the six months since the units went live. “I can’t remember the last time someone complained about YouTube being slow,” Ceglarek laughed.

Not only did WildFire prove fast enough to handle multiple high-resolution video streams at once, but it has provided a platform on which Ceglarek is now working to build out STW’s next-generation line of defence against malware.

A major part of the new environment is the use of a single Active Directory tree to manage STW’s users; the WildFire platform interfaces with the AD tree to correlate IP activity with user details.

“It’s nice to be able to see what people are doing at a user level without having to try and figure out whose IP address that was at the time,” Ceglarek said. “We don’t have to funnel users through a proxy to get that information, or get them to authenticate in any way.”

Working in partnership with Symantec Managed Security Services – which monitors alerts on the new platform on behalf of STW – Ceglarek is developing network-activity baselines, setting up rules for firewall security, and identifying new opportunities to streamline performance or to further tighten security.

“We’ve done it in conjunction with a partner to turn on basic security, really capture what’s going on for a couple of months, and really tell what needs to be clamped down on,” he explains. “We don’t have the resources to sit and watch firewall logs all day, but the Symantec guys do that for us – and they’re getting a lot more data to work with.”

The new platform is producing enough detailed information that STW is getting reports on activity it never even knew was happening in the past.

“Any suspected funny business that’s going on, we find out about straight away,” he said. “This never used to happen with the old firewalls; not only did they not capture that stuff, but they weren’t looking for it.”

A “very rich” set of reporting tools has helped make sense of that data – and, over time, it has become easier for the STW team to identify what has can stay and what has to go.

“It takes a bit of time,” Ceglarek said, “because you have to watch and see how traffic responds. But you start to see what sort of apps are flowing through your network, what you can optimise for, and what you should be blocking.”

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