Shining a light on Shadow IT
by May 28, 2019

Filed under: Industry Insights, Networking Technology, Performance Monitoring

According to a recent report from Gartner, anywhere from 20 to 50 percent of enterprise app spending takes place “in the shadows” — that is, without the knowledge of enterprise IT, and potentially in violation of network policies.

Known as “Shadow IT,” the rogue use of apps that leverage WAN capacity has exploded alongside the widespread adoption of SaaS for business-critical tools. And while this practice may be frustrating for IT teams that are already grappling with radical changes to their network infrastructure, it’s not always conducted with ill intent.

shadow IT laptop computer office network

The reasons that users will turn to Shadow IT run the gamut, often coming down to a simple preference of one platform over another. For instance, a company may defer to Slack as the approved messaging platform, but one department prefers Google Hangouts and has adopted that for their own internal comms. But even seemingly harmless reasoning like UX preference can be risky.

In 2017, McAfee researchers spotted 144 apps on the Google Play store that contained a malware strain called Grabos, which was masked as a seemingly harmless audio player. The bug had been downloaded more than 17 million times before the flaw was spotted.

Shadow IT is also indicative of a few larger organizational issues that could be weighing the company down in ways beyond exposure to malware. If employees are taking matters into their own hands because the approved software and device policies at their work are actually hindering productivity, then enterprise IT needs to rethink their approach.

To reckon with Shadow IT and help regain full visibility into the network, enterprise IT needs to take the following steps:

  1. Get a grasp of the entire app landscape. WIthout visibility into all of the apps leveraging network capacity, not only will enterprise IT be unaware of potentially malicious applications on the network, but they’ll also have their hands tied when it comes to seeing how non-critical apps are impacting important ones. Even if it’s a matter of employees using alternative solutions to get the job done, understanding employee habits versus what’s prescribed by the company policy can help IT rethink what applications they currently plan capacity for.
  2. Baseline network performance, and explore alternatives. Building on the first step, enterprise IT should look at this as an opportunity to see what’s really working, and explore areas for improvement. If a team abandons Slack for a different messaging app, for instance, IT should evaluate if it was simply a matter of UX preference, or if it was actually a performance issue that IT could remedy to get all users back on the same page. In that same vein, if shadow IT has unearthed a new solution that might be more cost-effective, for instance, or have a smaller impact on network capacity without impacting user experience, it might be time for IT to make a switch.
  3. Leverage visibility to enforce policies and increase awareness. Enterprise IT simply needs to use monitoring tools that allow them to see “the whole picture” when it comes to network and app performance. This doesn’t necessarily mean dedicating manpower specifically to policing end users and holding them to task, but employing lightweight — that is, low bandwidth and easy to control — solutions that can deliver real-time insights from a single pane of glass. With continued, active visibility, IT will know whenever rogue apps pop up on the network and who to ping about it. But rather than taking a policing approach, IT should use this as an opportunity to build a bridge between departments that turned to Shadow IT in the first place, recommending new tools or proactively assisting when performance laps.

It all comes down to enterprise IT shining a light on the dark corners of the network so that employees aren’t driven to working “in the shadows.” This requires IT to work smarter, not harder, collecting actionable data that paints a complete picture, not a disjointed collage that comes from mish-mash of monitoring tools.
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