December 23, 2009

Day 23 - The Dungeon Master's Guide to IT: A Standards Primer

This article written by Ben Rockwood.

A couple weeks ago, I was trying to architect the next evolution of security infrastructure and made an outline of major areas in which I need to focus. Pondering the list it occurred to me that it looked like the table of contents of a standard. I'd never really paid much attention to them, after all, everyone gripes about them and claims they are bureaucratic trash imposed on good engineers by dim-witted management. Why waste my time?

But then, I stepped back, with a child's eye, and admitted to myself that I really had no idea what any of this stuff meant. After all, thats the problem with security: when are you done? When can you say "Great! Its secure!" and move on? I've always hate security, and I think this ambiguity was precisely why.

So I brew a strong pot of coffee and create a new page in my wiki: "Industry Standards". Like many SysAdmin's I first need to get a "lay of the land", to orient myself in the subject before diving into components. ... About a week later, I think I'd started to make headway. I had no idea just how deep the rabbit whole went and quickly became obsessed with the subject.

Several things became clear during my studies. The first was that IT is struggling to leave adolescence and grow into manhood. The one thread that runs through all standards and frameworks out there is that IT can no longer be a special ops part of the company. Rather, it needs to mature and integrate with the larger corporation just like sales or marketing or facilities.

There are several reasons IT needs to stop being the corporate step-child and come under the fold, chief among them SOX compliance. Prior to SOX it was easy for management to say "Look, I don't want to know all this tech crap, just make sure our people have what they need and do your job." The blind eye of management. But with SOX, it became clear that the IT folks hold all the keys to the corporate data kingdom and needed strict oversight. I mean, the government is putting the pressure on finance, its only a matter of time they put the pressure on the people that keep the data that finance is reporting on. Is the data managed properly? Is the data secure? Is the data protected? What started with accountants is now putting the entire IT operation into question.

Thanks to SOX ambiguity, people start searching for solutions to help them comply, and thankfully a great deal of work had already been done. Thus, a variety of "frameworks" to implement controls (procedures and checks that keep things on the up-and-up; like the guy that works the register doesn't count it). Quickly auditors started agreeing that the best way to fill in the missing regulatory gaps was simply to verify the company against these frameworks and an industry of compliance and standards writing took on a whole new life.

When looking at standards there are some details to understand up front. There are "standards specification" or "requirements" that you actually can be certified against. There are "frameworks" which are series of controls which are basically like Dungeons & Dragons DM Guides, they tell you how to play the game. Lastly, there is "guidance" or "best practice", which aren't standards in the sense that you certify against them but rather you use them to help you implement the standard.

So lets start at the top: COSO. COSO is an internal control framework for corporations created in 1985 to combat the fraud and bad financial reporting of the 70's and 80's. Companies would voluntarily adopt COSO as a framework in which to run their business.

Modeled after COSO, the COBIT (Control Objectives for Information and related Technology) framework was created for IT governance. Instead of being aimed at top management on how to run the company in a responsible way, like COSO, it outlines how the IT organization should interact with the company as a whole. It tells the CEO what to expect from IT and what IT should do for the CEO.

COBIT plays a big role in de-geek-ifying IT and making it a more integrated part of the overall business, with roles and responsibilities and processes. Some of its controls include managing people, quality, problems, assets, and all sorts of not so fun stuff.

COBIT is a great framework, but how do you certify your organization? How do you implement it? This is where ITIL and ISO20K come in.

Of all the IT standards guidance, the Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL), has gotten the most interest. Currently in its 3rd version, ITIL is nothing more than a series of 5 books (expensive books, $600 for the set) that define IT Service Management (ITSM) best practice guidance. The emphasis is that IT is a service organization and should align itself to service the greater corporation, so it directly supports the direction set by COBIT. However, the two are distinct and not dependent on each other.

Whether you're trying to become a compliant organization or you simply want some ideas on how to properly structure an IT group, ITIL has become the defacto authority on the subject.

Inevitably, you'll want to certify that you're running a well-oiled IT organization and that your IT governance is up to spec, and so ISO 200000-1 (ISO20K) defines "Information Technology - Service Management: Specification". If you're looking for SOX compliance this is one you may need to audit against. But lets step back.

ISO20K can provide SysAdmin's in the trenches with something very useful, a checklist that outlines what a proper IT organization should look like. Are you doing problem management? Configuration management? Change management? Do you see the value in these processes or are they just a burden? How should an IT organization be organized and run? ISO20K can help bring all these questions into a structured discussion and thought exercise. Maybe you don't agree with parts of it, or think its too much, but ISO20K gives us a stick in the sand to orbit and ponder.

So, to review so far, the big guys use the COSO framwork, the IT guys use the COBIT framework, and they turn to ITIL for guidance and certify itho touches credit card data. The telecom industry gave us TIA-942, the "Telecommunications Infrastructure Standard for Data Centers". On and on and on.

In addition to these, I want to point out that they bump up against the two big project management standards as well, namely the popular US standard PMBOK ("Project Management Body of Knowledge") and the popular European standard PRINCE2 ("PRojects IN Controlled Environments"). Whether or not you care much about project management, when you get into the standards would you will see these two pop up from time to time, so at least learn to recognize them.


So why am I writing sysadmins about all this? Because I think generally we're a very curious bunch and have a natural desire to organize things into efficient systems. While we also have a gung-ho DIY instinct, ultimately we do realize that having at least some point of reference is a useful measure.

Whether your in a shop thats implementing standards and your only seeing the tasks without the big picture, or your the big man in a small shop wondering how to better organize your shop, these standards and frameworks can really help you both better understand the direction of the industry and provide a helpful second opinion on your method. No process created in committee will be perfect for your specific needs, but I encourage you to at least educate yourself and see if it doesn't change the way you think about your job.

The important takeaway is this: all these standards and frameworks and guidance are just books! Read them. Understand them as much as you can. Some are free and some are not but seek them out and you'll find them. Knowledge really is power and if you want to play a bigger role in your organization or prepare yourself for the future this is the to start.

Further reading:


Cheap Viagra said...

All those affairs that are related to dungeons are my favorite to read and research about, because I have always like the mystery and suspense which is aside a dungeon's story.
Great standards by the way!

Perlchild said...

ITIL is an IT standard, for credit-card data, like all payment card data, the standard is PCI-DSS.