RSA 2018: the good, the bad, the ugly, the great and the fantastic

Posted by   Martijn Grooten on   May 1, 2018

Two weeks ago, I was one of the more than 50,000 people who attended the RSA expo in San Francisco. I deliberately say 'expo', for while I spoke at the event two years ago, this year I didn't have the time to attend any of the talks – which certainly wasn't for a lack of quality talks on the programme.

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The good

Everyone is at RSA. In three days in San Francisco, I had more meetings than I have conference calls in most months, most of which were extremely fruitful. The business case for attending RSA is a very easy one to make.

But it's not just that: from badge collection to entering the exhibition halls, RSA is extremely well organised, and the staff are very friendly and helpful. Everything ran so smoothly, one would have barely noticed that a lot of construction work was going on around the Moscone Center.

Moreover, RSA takes place in San Francisco. As locations go, San Francisco is hard to to beat and the very international community living in the area makes it an excellent location for such an event.

The bad

I don't expect marketeers to comment on the code I write and likewise, I hesitate to tell vendors how to sell their product at a trade show. However, many vendors could do a much better job at delivering the 30-second pitch that covers what their company or its product actually does.

I do not need to be told that 'signature-based anti-virus isn't good enough any more' or that 'IoT is going to come with huge security risks', I just want to know what role your product or service has in making an organisation more secure. For many vendors, that question seems surprisingly hard to answer.

The ugly

I understand that the number of sales leads they generate is often how the performance of booth staff is measured, but in several cases scanning my badge seemed to take priority over dealing with actual questions. Several booths seemed to provide some entertainment (a magician, an arcade game) for which attendees paid by having their badge scanned.

At several booths, my badge was scanned with the explicit promise that someone who could answer my question would get back to me. I have yet to receive a response from any of these vendors.

Moreover, the industry still seems to consider Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD) a necessity for selling its products and services. Not only does this ignore the many areas in which we are doing rather well, it also fails to highlight the areas that we need to focus more on.

The great

Having said all that, there were many vendors who did have their booth staffed by people who could answer technical questions. Buzzwords are still common, but I had a feeling they weren't as over-used as in other years. I did not meet a vendor who would just put everything on the blockchain.

One trend I was particularly pleased to see was that there seemed to be fewer vendors selling products that claimed to stop all threats. Rather, there is a tendency even among vendors to accept that products offer mere mitigation. Many products these days not only stop all threats they see, but also give network administrators the tools to discover and analyse what is going on on their network. This is a clear sign of the industry growing up.

The fantastic

The best part of my trip to RSA were the people I met. Infosec attracts a surprisingly large number of really great people, who have great ideas and are genuinely interested in making the world more secure and in helping others to do so. Meeting so many of them in San Francisco was inspiring. The business case for coming back is an easy one to make, but thanks to these people, I genuinely look forward to returning in 2019.

For a very insightful vendor view on RSA, I can thoroughly recommend this blog post by Thinkst's Haroon Meer. To add another financial perspective, for someone flying in from Europe and generally trying to avoid any unnecessary spending (I stayed in a hotel well out of town), I estimate the total cost of attending to be between $2,000 and $3,000.

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