Networking / January 13, 2020

Visibility Schmizibility: How One Meaningful Word Lost Its Power

Updated October 28, 2021.

It’s been called the next big thing in cyber and you’ll be hard pressed to find a tech company not touting this term. But has visibility been so overhyped that it has lost its meaning?

What do meteorology, optometry and the security industries have in common? They all talk about visibility. A lot.

Lately, I’ve been amused at how prevalent and almost meaningless the term has become, specifically in the security sector. It seems to now refer to everything under the sun from email security to firewall projection, which is incredibly confusing to potential buyers. Even companies that provide endpoint protection tout visibility in ways that, ironically, aren’t completely clear. How can you claim visibility when you’re protecting only a small piece of a company’s infrastructure?

But it’s not just amusing, it’s also alarming that so many security providers promote  visibility capabilities when they’re simply looking at endpoints or tacking it on as a mere function of a larger tool, like a firewall. Tools are useful, but they are also limited. They were never designed to enable visibility, so when you ask a tool to suddenly become a visibility catch-all, it gets confused. It becomes cumbersome and can no longer perform to its expected parameters.

Overplayed and Undervalued 

Not only is the term inappropriate in many cases, but it’s also incredibly overused. And when an entire industry over-rotates on a word, the intended audience inevitably becomes numbed to its effect and the term loses its impact.

I’ve been pondering this issue since one of our last marketing meetings when the word popped up yet again and my first reaction was to retort “Visibility Schmizibility!” Not the most eloquent response to a colleague, I’ll admit. Yet, these ridiculous words sparked an immediate response. Suddenly, we were all talking about a very real issue plaguing the industry as a whole: the blatant overuse (read: abuse) of a once incredibly powerful word that’s now losing its meaning.

Hold Up. Can We Get Back to What Visibility Actually Means?

This is one of the issues with visibility — people tend to have either a broad or specific meaning attached to the term because of its versatility. It gets jumbled along the way because, as noted, it is prevalent in several industries, not just  technology.

The term “visibility” means different things to different sectors but at its core it’s simple. It boils down to how well you can see something.

Why Is Visibility so Overhyped in Security?

As digital initiatives have accelerated across organizations of every size, IT infrastructure has become exponentially more complex. This has resulted in the inability of IT teams to see and understand what is happening in their environments and, therefore, effectively manage security and performance. In fact, according to a recent survey conducted by Forrester Research of 1000 CISOs worldwide, IT complexity ranked as their number one challenge.*

This challenge is real and needs to be addressed. Much in the way that an optometrist helps her patients see the world more clearly, we need to help IT teams see their environments more clearly so they can quickly detect issues.

The problem, however, is that every vendor in security now uses this term because they know it’s a top pain point for customers. It’s another trend they’ve spotted, and they’re ready to peddle it whether or not they’ve got the clout to back it up. This really becomes an issue when organizations begin looking at visibility like it’s just another feature or tool to add to their offerings.

Let’s Be Very Clear: Visibility Is not a Feature or a Tool

At its core, visibility is a design philosophy in how to build modern IT infrastructure. It starts with understanding that the only path to effectively managing security and performance in the complex world of digital applications is to be able to see all the information in motion, from raw packets to application metadata, flowing across the hybrid infrastructure. And this capability needs to be built in as a foundational component of the infrastructure and network design.

Visibility Is Foundational to Digital Transformation

Only with this foundation in place can every network performance and security tool and the IT professionals leveraging these tools become effective in executing their assigned tasks. Without this capability, the infrastructure that needs to be agile, reliable and secure in order to support digital innovation, becomes rigid, unstable and exposed to security blind spots as staff attempt to manage with a patchwork of tools that only see part of the picture.

However, with true visibility in place, previously frustrated IT teams can go from complete chaos to total clarity, no matter the complexity of their network, becoming essential partners to the business as it drives digital transformation.

So, yes, the word visibility is overhyped, but let’s not discount the fact that what it represents is more critical than ever and must be at the heart of any digital initiative for it to be successful and for the business to ultimately succeed.

* Pollard, Jeff, and Paul McKay. “Forrester.” Build Your Security Organization, January 31, 2019. Your Security Organization/-/E-RES148197.

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