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Education provider aims high by improving its cyber protection capabilities  

Education provider aims high by improving its cyber protection capabilities  

Case StudiesEducationEnterprise SecurityTop StoriesUnited Kingdom

The TEC Partnership, one of England’s largest providers of further and higher education, is transforming the way it defends against ransomware and other cyberthreats. The education provider recognised the need to go further — to introduce a complete, proactive approach to security and to do it cost-effectively. Harshad Taylor, Group Executive Director of IT, TEC Partnership, discusses the challenges of securing over 20 sites and over 20,000 students and staff, and explains how Palo Alto Networks and KHIPU offer a holistic approach to threat detection, response and prevention.

The TEC Partnership comprises the Grimsby Institute, University Centre Grimsby, Scarborough TEC, East Riding College, Skegness TEC and The Academy Grimsby.

TEC Partnership is on guard against a rising tide of cyberthreats. According to the 2021 National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) report, a rise in ransomware and other attacks has the potential to inflict serious damage on the UK education sector. 

The report reveals that institutions would need a substantial amount of recovery time to reinstate critical services — at significant costs too. It states, ‘In recent incidents affecting the education sector, ransomware has led to the loss of student coursework, financial records, as well as data relating to COVID-19 testing.’

It is against this backdrop that the TEC Partnership is transforming the way it defends against ransomware and other cyberthreats. “Cybersecurity is our number one priority,” said Harshad Taylor, Group Executive Director of IT, TEC Partnership. “It can be difficult to predict how a compromise will begin, as cybercriminals adjust their attack strategy depending on the vulnerabilities they find. However, our aim is to stop threats in their tracks before they impact our institution partners.”

The security challenges are immense. The large-scale campus spans almost 20 sites, more than 10,000 students, 1,200 staff and over 3,100 endpoints. Moreover, a commonplace bring-your-own-device culture can present difficulties in securing the wider network, particularly with IT staff already facing stretched resources.

The experience of the pandemic also concentrated minds on how cybersecurity needed to evolve.

“COVID-19 has brought the security threat into sharp focus,” said Taylor. “The migration to online platforms and personal devices during remote working exposes the Partnership to a heightened risk and underlines the importance of good cybersecurity practices.”

Ensuring policies are adhered to can also be difficult in large institutions like TEC Partnership with a dynamic user population. And of course, there’s the ever-present need to ‘do more with less,’ squeezing more from finite resources.

TEC Partnership has been a long-term, satisfied user of Palo Alto Networks ML-Powered Next-Generation Firewalls (NGFWs) for several years, using the modern, intelligent platform to provide simple, automated network security. However, the education provider recognised the need to go further — to introduce a complete, proactive approach to security and to do it cost-effectively.

The cybersecurity strategy not only needed to protect sensitive data, but also reduce downstream costs. The requirements included:

  • Introduce complete, unified cybersecurity across multicampus, remote and remote and hybrid learning environments.
  • Consolidate visibility and administration across both cloud and on-premises.
  • Consider a 24/7/365 managed security solution in recognition of budget and resource limitations.
  • Move closer to a Zero Trust strategy providing only the necessary level of access privileges.

Cross-campus monitoring, detection and response 

Taylor was introduced to the KHIPU Networks eXtended Managed Detection and Response (XMDR) service at a security event. He liked what he saw. “We chose KHIPU owing to its experience within the education sector and ability to monitor, detect and respond to threats across our entire multicampus estate — not just the endpoint,” he said.

The KHIPU XMDR service comprises a comprehensive, connected Palo Alto Networks portfolio, as ML-Powered NGFWs are embedded within the KHIPU XMDR service to deliver intelligent and proactive network security. Simple to configure and easy to use, they can inspect a file while it’s being downloaded and block it instantly if it’s malicious, without having to access offline tools. This way, the time from visibility to prevention is near zero.

The NGFWs also incorporate Palo Alto Networks Cloud-Delivered Security Services (CDSS):

Threat Prevention: Provides TEC Partnership with comprehensive prevention of known exploits, malware, command and control, and custom rules. 

URL Filtering: Prevents access to known and new malicious websites before they can be accessed by users. 

GlobalProtect: Protects the hybrid education staff and students by understanding application use and associating traffic with users and devices.

For all of the colleges that make up the TEC Partnership, theCortex XDR is the backbone of endpoint protection, collecting data from more than 3,100 endpoints, the network, cloud and third-party data resources for extended and comprehensive visibility. Next-generation antivirus blocks malware, ransomware, exploits and fileless attacks. And as part of the XMDR service, KHIPU can pinpoint attacks with AI-driven analytics and coordinate response.

Cortex XSOAR automates security workflows in the SOC for a more agile response to alerts. And Cortex Data Lake runs AI and ML to continually learn from new data sources to evolve the Partnership’s defence against known and unknown forms of attack.

This all-encompassing approach is key. “Together, Palo Alto Networks and KHIPU give us a holistic approach to threat detection, response and prevention,” said Taylor. “The complete solution moves beyond protection for specific areas like servers, PCs and other endpoints. It extends across the entire network, endpoint estate, third-party and cloud environment. And that security is continually watching for vulnerabilities 24/7/365.”

Since deploying the new security solution, TEC Partnership has benefitted from having onecomplete, universal view of threat intelligence and incident response.

If a user who was previously disabled from the system suddenly tries to authenticate against Active Directory, for instance, or a user downloads game cheats, TEC Partnership is immediately notified as part of the XMDR service with appropriate action being taken.

Out-of-hours and in-hours coverage

24/7/365 managed detection and response ensure first- and second-line SOC response teams are on hand to monitor and respond to incidents both out of hours and in hours. Automated playbooks (through XSOAR) ensure KHIPU’s SOC teams instantly investigate high-level/severe alerts, meeting agreed SLAs.

Instant threat response

The proactive threat intelligence ensures TEC Partnership is always one step ahead of threats. Taylor was contacted recently, for example, by a senior partnership executive concerned they had clicked on a bogus link. The KHIPU SOC team was immediately alerted and investigated the incident, remotely checked the executive’s device and confirmed there were no incidents reported on the system. Prior to the SOC, a person would have had to physically visit the laptop to perform a manual security check.

Reducing the cost of education security

Taylor estimates that the XMDR service delivers a Return on Investment (RoI) every year, with the SOC and process automation minimising human interaction. “The XMDR service frees up person-hours to the equivalent of one FTE every year,” said Taylor. “This allows TEC Partnership to use on-site employees when absolutely needed and for confirmed security incidents, freeing them up for other projects.”

Continually learning, always improving

At the start of the curriculum year, approximately 13,000 alerts were received in the SOC. As the AI- and ML-driven insights learned about user profiles, incidents reduced by 30% on average. 

Timely, accurate SOC MDR reporting is also used for strategic planning. Network traffic data, for example, can be used to raise concerns that need to be escalated, such as identifying users sending particularly large email attachments.

Simple and intuitive

TEC Partnership is impressed by the ease of use of the portfolio. Taylor added: “The dashboards are very slick. We have a snapshot of everything we need on the first landing page. We can see any incidents, the sources and their severity. All of the insights — including those from the firewalls — are there in one simple screen.”

Community-driven insights

Members of the KHIPU XMDR community including other education groups are automatically and dynamically alerted to the security intelligence generated in the SOC from the TEC Partnership environment, strengthening sector-wide protection.

The transition to a state-of-the-art cybersecurity solution enables the group to look ahead with greater reassurance about its resiliency against attacks. As Taylor summarises: “With the growth in ransomware attacks across the education sector, this XMDR solution prevents advanced attacks. It reduces risk, enables our people to work with confidence, and as a managed service, it frees up our staff to focus on strategic tasks.”

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