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Zscaler and Chill

August 09, 2017 - 5 min read

Who remembers Blockbuster? 

Chances are that you remember visiting a Blockbuster store to browse thousands of film titles, buy some glucose/fructose-laced snacks, and stand disappointed at the counter as the teenager behind the counter tells you that Police Academy: Mission to Moscow still wasn't back but they had 12 copies of Waterworld if that would do instead?

Most people lived within a short drive of their nearest Blockbuster (at its peak, Blockbuster had 9,000 stores globally) and the company had diversified over time to offer not just the latest Hollywood releases but also video game rentals and even an buy-back program for the DVDs and games you no longer wanted.

Blockbuster's approach offered a great way to ensure that the family had a fun Friday night and, at its height in 2007, Blockbuster had more than 50 million members worldwide, employed over 80,000 people, and was worth billions. Kids especially loved walking along the aisles scanning the covers of thousands of different titles, turning them over to see what fantasies would be fulfilled in the enclosed 90 minutes. 

The user experience wasn't perfect though: you couldn't guarantee that the latest movie you wanted to rent would be available, plus you had to walk or drive to the nearest outlet and the service, well, it wasn't great. Most people who worked there seemed to be more interested in watching the adult-rated films on their TV behind the counter than ensuring that you received the best possible customer experience. And who can forget the scandalous late fees? It was, however, the best business model available at the time. 

Strangely, this story holds many parallels to the security industry; specifically, the traditional approach of managing web security using on-premises appliances. In 2007, nearly all companies were forcing all their web traffic through the data centre. The focus was on what was most expedient for the company and not what was best for the users.

Netflix was founded ten years before this, in 1997. Netflix started off selling and renting DVDs, like an online Blockbuster, but within a year switched to rentals delivered through the mail. Whilst not exactly revolutionary, it meant that customers didn't have to leave their homes in order to rent the latest releases and were exempt from late fees: you could keep your DVDs as long as you wanted. But again, it wasn't perfect: there was no guarantee that you would receive the latest films when released and there were still trips to the local post box to send back your rentals. 

This model can be compared to today’s hybrid web security offerings; they attempt to offer the best of both worlds by offering cloud access to users outside the corporate network whilst on-premises users still send traffic through appliances. It sounds like a good idea, but there's significant compromise; mainly, that you still need to buy and maintain a stack of appliances. Other pitfalls include the lack of effective cloud coverage provided by most vendors as well as inconsistent features and multiple admin consoles and reporting functions. And with more and more users working outside the corporate network, this approach will become outdated very quickly, like DVD rentals by mail. 

The year 2008 is a significant one in our story: it was the year that Netflix introduced unlimited video streaming to all existing customers at no extra cost, and the year by which Blockbuster had lost 85 percent of its capital value compared to just 18 months prior. It was also the year that Zscaler was founded. Our CEO and Founder, Jay Chaudhry, foresaw that appliances would struggle to cope with more and more users being outside the network and the rise in demand for cloud services. You can read more about his vision here.

So where are we today? Well, organisations continue to struggle under the high costs of owning and maintaining legacy on-premises solutions, the difficulty in applying a robust and consistent security policy at all times in every location, and employee frustration with poor performance. Such problems have stretched IT to its limits. The emergence of shadow IT — or pirated recordings for the sake of our analogy — has complicated IT’s work further. If content is not easily accessible through IT, users will get to the content they desire by other means.

Essentially Netflix and Zscaler share similar goals: the creation of a robust and scalable network capable of delivering services on-demand to every user in every location on any device with the best possible user experience.

Netflix is now firmly embedded in cultural society (it even has its own off-colour idiom), and any concerns at the time about user experience, ease of use, quality, and so on, are long gone. We are, however, in state of transitional thinking when it comes to cloud security. There are, of course, some people who still want to look at and hold their appliances like videos at their local Blockbuster store: “How can I trust something I can't see or hold in my hand?!” they cry.  

Concerns around the security of a cloud model are of course valid, but it’s worth referring back to the AWS shared responsibility model, which says that cloud service providers are responsible for the security of the cloud, whilst customers are always responsible for secuity in the cloud. I would also recommend reviewing the recent blog featuring Zscaler EMEA CISO Chris Hodson, which offers an excellent analysis on the FUD surrounding the cloud.

Like Netflix in the film rental business, Zscaler changed the game by introducing a completely cloud-based approach that covers every user, in every location, all of the time. Netflix currently has 90 million subscribers globally, whilst Zscaler protects over 15 million users every day. We may still be playing catch up to Netflix, but we are rapidly becoming the vendor of choice for effective protection of corporate employees and assets whilst on the internet. (Please see the Gartner and Forrester reports for further reading.)

And Blockbuster? Well, there are currently 12 active Blockbuster stores; they are a relic of a bygone era, and soon, too, will be that stack of appliances you have sitting in your data centre. You can always use them to prop up your DVD collection.

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