Interview: Mohammed Arif, Microsoft Gulf

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Mohammed Arif, Regional Director, Modern Workplace & Security, Microsoft Gulf talks about how the company is helping its clients in their digital transformation journey in the region.

So, what’s the key focus for Microsoft in the region?

In the past few years, our focus has been on working with our customers on their digital transformation. So, how do we kind of take that from being a cliched word to something that’s very real. How do you help businesses transform the products that they deliver to the customers? How do you help them make their employees more productive using digital mechanisms? Of course, digital transformation happens technologically and that’s possibly also the main way you see a lot of the cyber security risks. So, our primary focus here has been to guide enterprises on how to digitally transform or enable digital transformation for your employees, for your business and for your customers while at the same time doing that in a very secure manner.

What are the biggest challenges that you see your clients and customers face when they’re trying to transform to digital or move their services to digital or just improve their digital offerings?

One of the biggest things you notice over the past few years is that there was a time when you could draw a perimeter around your IT infrastructure and live within that world. But as companies adopt mechanisms to reach out to their customers or optimize their supply chain, they realize that you can’t operate just within that perimeter. All of a sudden, your network is beyond your organization and that is a necessity to enable digital transformation. At the same time that also means, all of a sudden, you’re exposed to a lot more risks that are out there. And I think that is the key challenge that our customers face. It definitely doesn’t mean that customers don’t go down that road of digital transformation. It’s about them assessing the risk and saying “Hey, if I go out and launch this new product on an online channel, how does the business benefit? Here’s a security risk and here’s how I’m going to mitigate that security risk.”

Do you work with a lot of partners in terms of transforming companies’ digital efforts?

We absolutely do. Our security posture and our position is based on three fundamental pillars: One of the big ones is partners. It’s about fostering this ecosystem of entities who build on top of the platform we provide them. We work with all types of partners because we believe that security calls for all of us to get stronger, the more we work together. To share a very simple example, we even share security insights with companies who we compete with. And you realize that the more we share, the more this industry in general becomes more secure. That also helps to possibly segue to one of the other two pillars i.e. the platform itself. How do we provide this holistic platform which has security built-in and enables new kind of security services? The last pillar, which I think is possibly our biggest differentiator, is the intelligence that we bring. Think of Microsoft and the infrastructure we have globally. We update about a billion Windows devices every month and we channel about 400 billion emails. You can imagine the amount of information we get, all of the signals, all of the patterns we detect. With all of these signals and our machine learning and cloud technologies, we build what we call the intelligence security graph, which is unique to us, that enables us to better inform our products and make our products deliver better security services. And I think a lot of customers would choose point products or cards to use on premises. You realize the full potential of a security solution when it is cloud based and can operate on a cloud scale and at the same time leverage technologies like machine learning and AI which is more than just looking for a signature, rather identifying a pattern, I’ll give you a simple example. If, let’s assume, you are accessing an internal website and you are based in Dubai, that is absolutely okay. But if you have somebody with your credentials accessing that same site from a location in the UK, and it was doing it at an odd time at night when you are usually at home; and it’s doing it multiple times within the same day. Most security systems would not think that as something wrong, just somebody with the right credentials trying to access an internal website, but an AI based or machine learning based system may be able to say ‘hey, that looks very odd.’ We all know that the user is definitely not based in the UK. It’s a very odd time of the day to be accessing the site and its doing it multiple times. That’s abnormal behavior and it gets flagged as a security risk. These things are only possible when you have cloud scale and machine learning analytics.

Can you tell us more about your efforts on the security aspect for the enterprises? 

One part of our mission is to build in as much security in to our products as possible. So, if we have the capability to build in an antivirus into the product like we did with Windows 10, we will do it. We take security as part of our culture of trust, and that trust is placed at the heart of our efforts and products. We spend about a billion dollars every year on security and build out a lot of these technologies. We have 3500 security dedicated engineers who work on this. So one part of my answer is that we try to integrate this technology and we have enterprises using that as well.

The second part I think is possibly more important. We had a lot of customers saying ‘hey, don’t just purely be focused on this protect mode’. Say, I’d want to protect my entire digital estate. We need technologies like antivirus and anti-malware to make that happen. But I think the really important paradigm shift is that we hope a lot of customers make this move from just protect, to detect and respond. We have detection and response mechanisms, and protection is just one part of that approach. Why is that important? When you look at all the breaches, a lot of them happened not necessarily because somebody got attacked, but because somebody got attacked and the attack did not get detected. On an average, it takes about 140 days before a company realizes that somebody is in their environment. So, it is less about whether somebody’s broken in and more about how long they got to be in there, how much time they got to observe the behavior and break into more systems and cause damage. Hence, moving away from just saying protect with an antivirus to advanced detection tools like advanced threat detection (ATP) in Windows and Microsoft Office which enable you to not just say ‘hey, you’ve been breached’. It’s very common for most companies to be breached. But your ability to detect, protect and respond within a matter of a few hours and immediately respond by isolating systems that are attacked is critical. That is the critical strength enterprises need to gain. Microsoft advocates a posture that we call as ‘assume breach’. You have to assume that you will be breached.  That’s the world we live in. How quickly are we able to detect the systems and the policies that enable businesses to respond? A lot of our technologies are built around that specific ‘assume breach’ approach.

To give an example of somebody trying to access SharePoint (an internal site). Assuming that somebody’s broken in, how quickly were you able to detect that behavior and isolate that attack? That approach is what really calls out a need to expand from just the notion of an antivirus solution. It’s to activate systems and tools that enable quick detection and response; and a lot of those are cloud based and leverage machine learning tools.

Does Microsoft work closely with the common antivirus software companies as well.

Yes, we do. We have a lot of industry partnerships. We are part of a lot of global security alliances. A lot of the security solutions are developed by ISVs who build their software on top of our platform. We also provide inputs and support to our partners as and when necessary, to help the ecosystem in general.

Anything to talk about in terms of specific developments here in Middle East from Microsoft?

It’s a region we’ve been really committed to in the past many years. Microsoft has been here for almost 25 years. We’ve grown as a company and have over a thousand partners in the region. I think the next wave for us is really about helping our customers think about how they digitally transform their organization – both for their employees and for their customers. And that’s been our mission, and reflects every customer conversation we have.

Earlier in 2018, Microsoft also announced it will make available its secure, flexible and intelligent cloud to regional customers through two dedicated cloud datacenters, one in Dubai and one in Abu Dhabi. These facilities will cater specifically to enterprises in the Middle East, and organizations in the region can make the most out of the Microsoft Cloud by availing themselves of enterprise-grade reliability and performance, combined with data residency and the broadest compliance.