* Ryan Naraine is on vacation.
Guest Editorial by Rich Mogull
Recently I was watching an interesting 60 Minutes episode on the new generation of "Millennials" entering the workforce. I always thought they were called Generation Y, but I guess that term is a little too old to make good television. According to CBS, if you raise a generation that's constantly told how special they are, wins trophies just for showing up, and has their parents calling college professors when Timmy gets a bad grade, they tend to develop some works habits that might be at-odds with what even us only-slightly-older types are used to.
I don't want to get into a debate about the relative merits of random blocks defined when people are born, but one aspect of the piece that's very clear to any of us working in technology is that we are only at the earliest edge of a growing workforce that was raised in the information age. If we posit that the Internet began hitting the mainstream around 1994/1995, that means we have some of the first workers who were fluent in Web browsing, IM, e-mail, cell phones, and TiVo before graduating high school. In less than 10 years, we'll see the first employees that never lived a day without the World Wide Web, and used a computer mouse years before writing their first word.
This is a generation that is not only extremely technology literate (even if they can't program a simple "Hello World"), but one with attitudes towards their personal technology that will challenge how organizations traditionally approach workers and their tools.
Mankind has always had a relationship with our tools that's far deeper than treating them as mere instruments to accomplish a task. Every since Grok carved his initials into the first club, we've been customizing our tools to suit our personal tastes and work habits. It's inconceivable to think that knowledge workers are any different, yet for two decades we've stuffed our best and brightest onto corporate-standard desktops and laptops and made them sign paperwork placing their job in jeopardy if they download an unapproved application they need to get a job done.
And for good reason; more often than not those users are downloading file sharing software (and sharing their entire corporate hard drive), or the latest weather (or porn) widget full of malware. Even our technically literate users are prone to customizing their tools in incredibly stupid ways. Yet eventually we'll hit the day where potentially employees will look upon locked-down IT shops as little more than undesirable digital sweatshops. What? You wont let me Twitter from work? Can I have that application back?
Thus we need to reconcile a workforce that's used to completely controlling and customizing their technology with the needs of an organization that must limit security risks. One of the most powerful tools at our disposal to resolve this conflict is desktop virtualization.
Most of the hype around virtualization today is in the data center, but desktop virtualization will revolutionize how we manage employee technology. Companies can create standard, locked down, virtual images for secure access to enterprise resources. They can issue these to employees who run them off their own PC or Mac. Assuming we consider our hypervisors secure enough, the employees can download all the pictures of alcoholic celebrities they want and any malicious software shouldn't cross over into the "safe" corporate environment. We'll use tools like NAC and DLP to limit the risk on those (hopefully) rare occasions where something does manage the cross the wall. If you're good about backing up user data, when they employee does manage to blow up their image you just have to send them a new one on DVD to load up and then restore their files over a secure network.
I know of at least a few organizations experimenting with this today in an official capacity, and plenty that don't realize their employees are using tools like Parallels Transporter and VMWare P2V to convert their corporate PCs into virtual images they run on their Mac or Linux computer.
Down the road, it won't surprise me to see more application virtualization to better mix our work and personal environments while minimizing risk. Google bought GreenBorder Technologies to address just this issue and allow Google applications running in the browser to be better secured against any malicious software running at the time.
I realize plenty of you are cringing at the thought of letting employees pick their own computers and run whatever they want, but through proper use of desktop virtualization we can minimize risk while still attracting the best and brightest. Don't believe me? Just bookmark this page and come back in five or 10 years.
I told you so.
* Rich Mogull as an independent security consultant and the founder of Securosis. He was previously an analyst at Gartner for seven years.