The CIO-CSO Partnership

TriWest Healthcare Alliance counts on John Pontrelli to work effectively with his technology colleagues to provide health care to 2.8 million members of the US military and their families in 21 states. As VP and CSO, Pontrelli's responsibilities cover both physical security and information security, and he has found it imperative to form a tight working relationship with his CIO, Rick Green. Pontrelli, a corporate security expert at Microsoft and WL Gore before joining TriWest three years ago, talks about the partnership he has formed with his CIO.

Michael Goldberg: In the past, you've described TriWest as being an information systems-dependent company. What does that mean? John Pontrelli: TriWest is in 21 states, basically the left side of the United States, including Hawaii and Alaska. We have over 120 locations, and they are all connected via WAN to our corporate data centre in Phoenix. Most of our sites are on military installations, so we have to coordinate with the military when we come in to set up our routing/switching equipment, as well as bringing in the phone lines. We house two or three major applications that our people hit from all the 21 states to retrieve data and to input data. We have a lot of data traversing our 21-state region at any given time; we also push our VoIP over our wide area network. Our entire company is VoIP, and our security systems also ride over our network, so our network stays busy.

That's a good segue into the relationship you have with your CIO, Rick Green. Could you describe the nature of that relationship and, in a business like yours, what makes the relationship important? Rick and I both started at TriWest approximately three years ago. He came in to redefine the IT - not only the infrastructure but the applications - and we had just been awarded a new bid from the [US] Department of Defence. He had a huge challenge in front of him.

I was hired a few months after he came on board. One of the conversations we had was around security and IT. My proposal was that information security should reside in my department, primarily to free him up to focus on connectivity, availability and support in the businesses but also because implementing all of the security requirements that the DoD had levied upon us was somewhat unmanageable. We agreed right there, from the very beginning, that that's how we were going to set it up and run it.

The other agreement we had was (and I think this is a big selling point) that I don't audit his environment, I assess it. When we are assessing the security posture of our routers, switches, databases, servers and desktops, whatever we find, we share [that information] with IT, so it's a collaborative effort. We then address any issue, whether it's a technical, procedural or a person issue. If something has bubbled up to the point where it needs Rick's attention, I meet with Rick. We meet once a month, regardless, to go over a list of things we want to talk about, but both of our doors are open to each other if we ever want to talk about technology or security. We pop in on each other all the time.

There's a lot of discussion nowadays about auditing systems and procedures. You're emphasizing assessment as a means of collaborative communication. What's the difference? I'm a big fan of the word assessment; I don't like the word audit. It carries negative connotations; it separates; it creates an adversarial-type atmosphere even if there's a collaborative effort going on. We never use the word audit within security and, in reality, we're not auditing. We have vulnerability analysis tools that allow us to scan our entire environment, from the inside as well as the outside. We do this against a set of security policies that we have received from the government for a certain security posture that we need to maintain in order to hold onto our security accreditation. When we're doing these scans, IT is aware of it. They're always waiting for the results because they want to know - just as much as security wants to know if the environment, application or network is not meeting requirements - because they want to get it where it needs to be. We're assessing, we're collaborating, and together we maintain a very high security posture at TriWest that I think both Rick I are very proud of.

Is there a loop to close after the assessment to see that changes, fixes or improvements are carried forward? Is that handled by your group or the CIO's? It depends upon whether it's a technical, procedural or people issue. Our scanning goes on continually (we have a set scanning schedule) so if the issue is still there when we go back and scan again we notify IT. Most times, IT tells us if they're going to be able to fix it and in what period of time. There's always reasons why things aren't where they need to be, but the good part is we all communicate very well and we're all on the same page. From my perspective, a security perspective, and probably from Rick's perspective as well, the last thing we want to do is be surprised. It's the unknown that really keeps me awake at night.

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