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Hydrogen’s promise: How fuel cells might power lower-carbon datacentres



Hydrogen’s promise: How fuel cells might power lower-carbon datacentres

Fleur Doidge


Published: 26 May 2022

The UK government says hydrogen is key to future energy supplies, even planning national subsidies to beef up production by the end of 2022. However, the embryonic hydrogen industry has not yet tackled the investment, sustainability and cost issues around data storage use cases.

Roberto Castaldini, the new-product-focused offering specialist at Vertiv, says the growing urgency of sustainability is driving hydrogen energy solutions for the datacentre, and incentivising investment.

“Usually datacentre and IT systems require consistent energy continuously, 24/7,” says Castaldini. “We then have a huge demand for batteries, for example, to support [intermittent] power from renewables. And there is the carbon footprint and other sustainability issues.”

Emerging hydrogen fuel-cell technologies offer potential for backup loads as well as off-grid or primary power that is reliable and sustainable, for combined heat and power applications, grid and micro-grid support. An Atos-HDF Energy venture has said its first hydrogen-powered datacentre will be online by 2023.

Meanwhile, Vertiv has joined a consortium of seven companies, including Equinix, InfraPrime, RISE, Snam and SolidPower, working with Europe’s Clean Hydrogen Partnership to develop a next-generation fuel-cell platform for datacentres.

“We are developing a UPS [uninterruptible power supply] and battery solution to go together with the fuel cell,” says Castaldini. “We are also evaluating proton exchange membrane [PEM] fuel cells as backup power sources to replace diesel generators.”

Another proof-of-concept project is developing fuel cells as a primary datacentre power system, inverting the usual approach by using grid energy as the backup power source. Of course, hydrogen fuel solutions are already produced on an industrial scale for the automotive sector.

“We want to develop UPS features in particular on the firmware side to work with this technology, and plan next year to start producing standard UPS systems that are capable of interacting with the fuel sensor,” says Castaldini.

“It’s hard to have the numbers right now because there are very few applications with a very precise and green lifecycle of hydrogen”
Roberto Castaldini, Vertiv

Used in a pure-hydrogen fuel cell, the waste product is water vapour – which technically suggests zero emissions. But in the real world, emissions are also produced in the manufacture of the technology and processes including haulage and storage.

“We have brown hydrogen obtained by fossil fuels. We have blue hydrogen – also obtained via fossil fuels but with a process of CO2 capture,” he says. “What I call violet or purple hydrogen comes from nuclear. Then there is the one everybody wants, which is green hydrogen, obtained by electrolysis of water and with electricity gained by renewable sources like solar photovoltaic or wind.”

But even considering the entire technological lifecycle, introducing hydrogen energy as part of the mix will deliver a chance to reduce emissions by reducing use of fossil fuels – not least because hydrogen is typically required in comparatively low volumes per equivalent amount of energy.

“It’s hard to have the numbers right now because there are very few applications with a very precise and green lifecycle of hydrogen,” says Castaldini. “But compared to the current situation, it’s definitely an improvement.”

Europe’s Clean Hydrogen Partnership put €300.5m (£252.9m) up for grabs in its first call for proposals, in February 2022, to develop clean hydrogen technologies. To put that into perspective, the UK’s Industrial Hydrogen Accelerator fund has earmarked £26m for feasibility or risk and cost reduction proofs for hydrogen fuel – although the government said in August 2021 that it would “unlock £4bn in investment by 2030”.

Hold-ups on hydrogen adoption

Although hydrogen has few technological rivals when it comes to lower-emission, compact footprint systems for backup or primary power, it is expensive compared with the current power grid, with diesel generators as backup and batteries for short-term discharges. Hydrogen itself also must be stored, expensively, under pressure or at very low temperatures.

Costs are starting to come down as the market grows, but regulation is another barrier. Although other industrial sectors already use hydrogen – such as glass and food production – a new framework of permissions, certifications and laws for hydrogen fuel is needed, says Castaldini.

Graham Smith, senior research scientist at the UK’s national institute of metrology, the National Physical Laboratory, calls lithium batteries “a non-starter” for daily, weekly or monthly storage on a countrywide grid scale, and in the UK, the tech and economics of other redox-flow battery types also remain unproven. That said, hydrogen could reuse existing UK gas infrastructure.

“Hydrogen storage can be done cheaply and at scale for a long time, filling underground caverns with compressed gas,” says Smith. “Storing hydrogen this way is one of the few methods available for storing enough energy to properly manage the variances in UK energy consumption from month to month and season to season.

“We already do it safely with natural gas. There are some engineering and economics questions, but they don’t require a breakthrough new technology.”

But there is a drawback: hydrogen technology for electricity generation – as opposed to transport or heating – is not quite ready for prime time yet, warns Smith, adding that the thermodynamic efficiency of the electrolysis process used in fuel cells is low – about 50%.

“This is commonly stated, but people miss the point that transitioning to a new paradigm where storage is difficult is expensive in relation to the cost of energy,” he says. “But we do still need to do it.”

Smith says a massive, energy-thirsty scale-up of UK capacity to produce electrolysers for creating hydrogen is needed – itself entailing a faster roll-out of sustainable, renewable and clean energy. Some five to 10 times the UK’s current electricity supply capabilities are needed to replace natural gas. Also, some electrolyser technologies use quite rare materials.

“For example, proton exchange membrane water electrolysis [PEMWE] solutions only use iridium-based catalysts, the supply of which is inelastic,” he says, adding that at the same time, for some 80% of end-use cases for hydrogen energy, alternatives exist, such as batteries or heat pumps.

Vidal Bharath, chief operating officer at UK hydrogen fuel cell company Bramble Energy, sees a mixture of fuel and energy sources in future, with fuel cells five times the price of a diesel engine and “thousands of pounds” per kW.

“We need to make a big step-change in the cost of exactly what we do,” he says. “Then you need quite complex, precise factories to build it. They exist but haven’t the full capacity for when you move on to the next generation of technology – and it takes 12 months to build a new factory.”

Bramble has developed a printed circuit board fuel cell (PCBFC) that it believes could be made in many printed circuit board factories. It has already launched a portable power product range and is developing a high-power density, liquid-cooled fuel system on a scalable, low-cost platform.

When it comes to safety worries, Bharath notes that society already deals daily with extremely flammable fuels, such as petrol.

But when hydrogen vents, it can happen quickly – making it potentially safer than natural gas in similar circumstances, not building up in a system before it blows. The right infrastructure can allow hydrogen to vent as and when into the atmosphere, he says.

“Loads of hydrogen” traverses UK roads every day – although the country is well behind the likes of Japan, California and Germany when it comes to hydrogen, with about 70Mt of hydrogen already used worldwide each year, says Bharath.

It can’t simply be about things like “adding more batteries to your electric vehicle” because that makes for more weight to transport, with fuel-cell systems possibly weighing 75% less for an equivalent energy requirement, he points out.

“If we commit to it, it can happen,” says Bharath. “We need to have more input from companies on ‘these are the areas that we think we could get to or we can decompose as quickly as possible’.”

Hydrogen energy could be cost-effective

Rami Reshef is CEO at Israel-based GenCell, which has developed fuel-cell technologies for UPS, backup and off-grid power, including for utilities. He says stationary fuel cells already generate power at Apple, Verizon and Coca-Cola, and hydrogen-fuelled vehicles are appearing worldwide, with refilling stations already widespread in some countries.

“If the world would like to meet sustainability goals by 2040-2060, hydrogen will be a key player,” says Reshef. “Some analysts figure that hydrogen will comprise 20-25% of the energy market by 2050. Infrastructure must be new, beyond what we have, and we don’t want to use fossil fuels.”

“Hydrogen can help keep our life as it is, while watching out for Mother Nature”
Rami Reshef, GenCell

Hydrogen fuel cells can also support critical infrastructure potentially through extreme conditions – including heatwaves, storms and floods caused by climate change. Meanwhile, emerging markets not connected to the grid have a “dire need” for clean power for basic needs – and to move away from diesel generators, says Reshef.

Among multiple emerging fuel-cell technologies, one by GenCell uses liquid ammonia (NH3) instead of H2 as fuel for the oxidation reaction, he says.

By volume, liquid NH3 has twice as much hydrogen as liquid hydrogen and can be stored in large tanks at room temperature. Some 200Mt of NH3 are already produced each year and transported globally via pipelines, tankers and lorries – it is used widely to make fertiliser, for example.

Although not as “green” and zero-emission as H2, delivery and use at massive scale can be more cost-effective, says Reshef. Plus, water can be used as a feedstock.

“Think about locations in the world that don’t have hydrogen but do have water,” he says. “This is something that definitely will change the world and improve the lives of many people. Hydrogen can help keep our life as it is, while watching out for Mother Nature.”

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Why trusted execution environments will be integral to proof-of-stake blockchains



Why trusted execution environments will be integral to proof-of-stake blockchains

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Ever since the invention of Bitcoin, we have seen a tremendous outpouring of computer science creativity in the open community. Despite its obvious success, Bitcoin has several shortcomings. It is too slow, too expensive, the price is too volatile and the transactions are too public.

Various cryptocurrency projects in the public space have tried to solve these challenges. There is particular interest in the community to solve the scalability challenge. Bitcoin’s proof-of-work consensus algorithm supports only seven transactions per second throughput. Other blockchains such as Ethereum 1.0, which also relies on the proof-of-work consensus algorithm, also demonstrate mediocre performance. This has an adverse impact on transaction fees. Transaction fees vary with the amount of traffic on the network. Sometimes the fees may be lower than $1 and at other times higher than $50.

Proof-of-work blockchains are also very energy-intensive. As of this writing, the process of creating Bitcoin consumes around 91 terawatt-hours of electricity annually. This is more energy than used by Finland, a nation of about 5.5 million.

While there is a section of commentators that think of this as a necessary cost of protecting the entire financial system securely, rather than just the cost of running a digital payment system, there is another section that thinks that this cost could be done away with by developing proof-of-stake consensus protocols. Proof-of-stake consensus protocols also deliver much higher throughputs. Some blockchain projects are aiming at delivering upwards of 100,000 transactions per second. At this performance level, blockchains could rival centralized payment processors like Visa.  

Figure 1: Validators

The shift toward proof-of-stake consensus is quite significant. Tendermint is a popular proof-of-stake consensus framework. Several projects such as Binance DEX, Oasis Network, Secret Network, Provenance Blockchain, and many more use the Tendermint framework. Ethereum is transitioning toward becoming a proof-of-stake-based network. Ethereum 2.0 is likely to launch in 2022 but already the network has over 300,000 validators. After Ethereum makes the transition, it is likely that several Ethereum Virtual Machine (EVM) based blockchains will follow suit. In addition, there are several non-EVM blockchains such as Cardano, Solana, Algorand, Tezos and Celo which use proof-of-stake consensus.  

Proof-of-stake blockchains introduce new requirements

As proof-of-stake blockchains take hold, it is important to dig deeper into the changes that are unfolding.  

First, there is no more “mining.” Instead, there is “staking.” Staking is a process of putting at stake the native blockchain currency to obtain the right to validate transactions. The staked cryptocurrency is made unusable for transactions, i.e., it cannot be used for making payments or interacting with smart contracts. Validators that stake cryptocurrency and process transactions earn a fraction of the fees that are paid by entities that submit transactions to the blockchain. Staking yields are often in the range of 5% to 15%.  

Second, unlike proof-of-work, proof-of-stake is a voting-based consensus protocol. Once a validator stakes cryptocurrency, it is committing to staying online and voting on transactions. If for some reason, a substantial number of validators go offline, transaction processing would stop entirely. This is because a supermajority of votes are required to add new blocks to the blockchain. This is quite a departure from proof-of-work blockchains where miners could come and go as they pleased, and their long-term rewards would depend on the amount of work they did while participating in the consensus protocol. In proof-of-stake blockchains, validator nodes are penalized, and a part of their stake is taken away if they do not stay online and vote on transactions.  

Figure 2: Honest voting vs. dishonest voting.

Third, in proof-of-work blockchains, if a miner misbehaves, for example, by trying to fork the blockchain, it ends up hurting itself. Mining on top of an incorrect block is a waste of effort. This is not true in proof-of-stake blockchains. If there is a fork in the blockchain, a validator node is in fact incentivized to support both the main chain and the fork. This is because there is always some small chance that the forked chain turns out to be the main chain in the long term. 

Punishing blockchain misbehavior

Early proof-of-stake blockchains ignored this problem and relied on validator nodes participating in consensus without misbehaving. But this is not a good assumption to make in the long term and so newer designs introduce a concept called “slashing.” In case a validator node observes that another node has misbehaved, for example by voting for two separate blocks at the same height, then the observer can slash the malicious node. The slashed node loses part of its staked cryptocurrency. The magnitude of a slashed cryptocurrency depends on the specific blockchain. Each blockchain has its own rules.  

Figure 3: Misbehaving validators are slashed by other validators for reasons such as “Attestation rule offense” and “Proposer rule offense”

Fourth, in proof-of-stake blockchains, misconfigurations can lead to slashing. A typical misconfiguration is one where multiple validators, which may be owned or operated by the same entity, end up using the same key for validating transactions. It is easy to see how this can lead to slashing.  

Finally, early proof-of-stake blockchains had a hard limit on how many validators could participate in consensus. This is because each validator signs a block two times, once during the prepare phase of the protocol and once during the commit phase. These signatures add up and could take up quite a bit of space in the block. This meant that proof-of-stake blockchains were more centralized than proof-of-work blockchains. This is a grave issue for proponents of decentralization and consequently, newer proof-of-stake blockchains are shifting towards newer crypto systems that support signature aggregation. For example, the Boneh-Lynn-Shacham (BLS) cryptosystem supports signature aggregation. Using the BLS cryptosystem, thousands of signatures can be aggregated in such a way that the aggregated signature occupies the space of only a single signature.  

How trusted execution environments can be integral to proof-of-stake blockchains  

While the core philosophy of blockchains revolves around the concept of trustlessness, trusted execution environments can be integral to proof-of-stake blockchains.  

Secure management of long-lived validator keys  

For proof-of-stake blockchains, validator keys need to be managed securely. Ideally, such keys should never be available in clear text. They should be generated and used inside trusted execution environments. Also, trusted execution environments need to ensure disaster recovery, and high availability. They need to be always online to cater to the demands of validator nodes.  

Secure execution of critical code

Trusted execution environments today are capable of more than secure key management. They can also be used to deploy critical code that operates with high integrity. In the case of proof-of-stake validators, it is important that conflicting messages are not signed. Signing conflicting messages can lead to economic penalties according to several proof-of-stake blockchain protocols. The code that tracks blockchain state and ensures that validators do not sign conflicting messages needs to be executed with high integrity.  


The blockchain ecosystem is changing in very fundamental ways. There is a large shift toward using proof-of-stake consensus because it offers higher performance and a lower energy footprint as compared to a proof-of-work consensus algorithm. This is not an insignificant change. 

Validator nodes must remain online and are penalized for going offline. Managing keys securely and always online is a challenge. 

To make the protocol work at scale, several blockchains have introduced punishments for misbehavior. Validator nodes continue to suffer these punishments because of misconfigurations or malicious attacks on them. To retain the large-scale distributed nature of blockchains, new cryptosystems are being adopted. Trusted execution environments that offer disaster recovery, high availability, support new cryptosystems such as BLS and allow for the execution of custom code with high integrity are likely to be an integral part of this shift from proof-of-work to proof-of-stake blockchains.

Pralhad Deshpande, Ph.D., is senior solutions architect at Fortanix.


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How NFTs in the metaverse can improve the value of physical assets in the real world



How NFTs in the metaverse can improve the value of physical assets in the real world

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The metaverse has become inseparable from Web3 culture. Companies are racing to put out their own metaverses, from small startups to Mark Cuban and, of course, Meta. Before companies race to put out a metaverse, it’s important to understand what the metaverse actually is.

Or what it should be.

The prefix “meta” generally means both ”self-referential” or “about.” In other words, a meta-level is something about a lower level. From dictionary.com: 

“-a prefix added to the name of a subject and designating another subject that analyzes the original one but at a more abstract, higher level:

metaphilosophy; metalinguistics.

a prefix added to the name of something that consciously references or comments upon its own subject or features:

a meta-painting of an artist painting a canvas.

The key aspect of both definitions is self-reference. Logically, the term “metaverse” then should be “a universe that analyzes the original one, but at an abstracted level.” In other words, the metaverse will be an abstraction layer that describes our current physical world. 

The metaverse should be an extended reality, not a whole new one. 

And that’s why the trend has been heading toward a metaverse that’s built on crypto. Crypto, just like the world, has a kind of physical nature to it. You can’t copy a Bitcoin or an NFT. Just like the coffee cup on your desk can’t occupy the same physical space as the cup next to it. The space itself is singular and immutable and can’t be copied. Even if you make a 3D-printed replica, it’s not the same cup. So crypto is very well suited to building an immutable layer that describes the real world. In crypto, we can build models of the real world that carry over many of its properties.

The natural opportunity will be in digital twins. Digital twins create a universe of information about buildings or other physical assets and are tied to the physical world. In other words, they are that meta-layer. By integrating blockchain technology, in the form of NFTs, all data and information surrounding the physical twin can be verified and saved, forever, all tracked with the asset itself. When you think about it, digital twins are the metaverse versions of the physical twins, and the technology enhances features of the real world. 

Validation is the key to metaverse truth

When evaluating crypto/blockchain’s relationship to the metaverse, it’s important to remember that crypto is about verification and validation. So when considering blockchain’s relationship to the metaverse, it makes sense to think about it as a digital space that can be validated. 

So in the metaverse, it’s time to expand on what an NFT is and what it can hold. NFTs cannot be copied because they are tied to the validation and verification process in time, which is what makes them nonfungible. As the capabilities of NFTs grow, they are becoming a new information dimension that is tied to the real world.

NFT domains are going to be core to this idea. They become a nonfungible data space, uniquely tied to us and our activity on Web3. In the metaverse, these domain NFTs can represent a house; recording and validating every visitor, repair, event, etc. And that record and that infrastructure can be sold not just with the house but as a core component of the house, increasing the value.

By clearly defining what a true metaverse is, both for developers and investors, we can start to move toward a meaningful version of it. 

Leonard Kish is cofounder of Cortex App, based on YouBase’s distributed date protocol.


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Protecting the modern workforce requires a new approach to third-party security



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Ask any HR leader: they’ll tell you that attracting and retaining employees continues to be a top challenge. While this has never been easy, there’s little doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic (and distributed workforces) have made things even more complex. As you read this article, many workers are actively considering leaving their current roles, which don’t support their long-term goals or desired work-life balance. While organizations attempt to navigate this “Great Resignation,” more than 4 million workers are still resigning every month.

As 2022 marches on, hiring teams face another massive obstacle: global talent shortages. These trends have companies rushing to find creative stop-gap solutions to ensure business continuity in difficult times. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that more companies are relying on third-party vendors, suppliers and partners to meet short-term needs, reduce costs and keep innovation humming. In addition, the rise of the gig economy has more employees entering into nontraditional or temporary working relationships. This trend is particularly prevalent in the healthcare industry, but as many as 36% of American employees have a gig work arrangement in some form, either alongside or instead of a full-time job. 

What’s more, the corporate supplier ecosystem has become exponentially more complex. Amidst the supply chain vulnerabilities revealed by the pandemic, organizations are expanding and diversifying the number of supplier relationships they’re engaging in. Meanwhile, regulators have stepped up efforts to manage these business ecosystems.

In many cases, outsourcing to temporary workers or external partners makes good business sense. Sometimes, given the constraints of the talent pool, there’s simply no other option for a company. Either way, organizations should be aware of the security risks that third parties bring — and the steps they can take to minimize the chances of a breach occurring. 

Third-party security challenges remain prevalent

Bringing a third-party workforce onboard in a rushed way – and without proper governance or security controls in place – leaves organizations open to significant cyber risk. These risks can stem from the third-party users or suppliers themselves or those third parties’ access becoming compromised and used as a conduit for lateral movement, enabling attackers to access the company’s most sensitive data. Sadly, a lack of centralized control over suppliers and partners is all too common, no matter the industry. In many organizations, unlike full-time employees, third-party users are managed on an ad hoc basis by individual departments using manual processes or custom-built solutions. This is a recipe for increased cyber risk.

Take the now-infamous Target breach, which remains among the largest-scale third-party security breaches in history. In this incident, attackers made their way onto the retail giant’s network after compromising login credentials belonging to an employee of an HVAC contractor, eventually stealing 110 million customers’ payment information. 

In today’s world, where outsourcing and remote work are now the norm, third parties require corporate network access to get their jobs done. If companies don’t reconsider third-party security controls – and take action by addressing the root of the problem – they’ll remain open to cyber vulnerabilities that can devastate their business and its reputation.

A pervasive lack of visibility and control

Although reliance on third-party workers and technology is widespread in nearly every industry (and in some, it’s common for an organization to have more third-party users than employees), most organizations still don’t know exactly how many third-party relationships they have. Even worse, most don’t even grasp precisely how many employees each vendor, supplier or partner brings into the relationship or their level of risk. According to one survey conducted by the Ponemon Institute, 66% of respondents have no idea how many third-party relationships their organization has, even though 61% of those surveyed had experienced a breach attributable to a third party. 

Grasping the full extent of third-party access can be particularly challenging when there’s collaboration with outsiders through cloud-based applications like Slack, Microsoft Teams, Google Drive or Dropbox. Of course, the adoption of these platforms skyrocketed with the large-scale shift to remote and hybrid work that has come about over the last two years.

Another challenge is that although an organization may try to maintain a supplier database, it can be near-impossible to ensure that it’s both current and accurate with current technical capabilities. Because of processes like self-registration and guest invites, external identities remain disconnected from the security controls applied to employees. 

Growing regulatory interest and contractual obligations

As incidents and breaches attributable to third parties continue to rise, regulators are taking notice. For instance, Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) now includes several controls targeted explicitly at managing third-party risk. Even the Cybersecurity Maturity Model Certification (CMMC) explicitly targets improving the cybersecurity maturity of third parties that serve the federal government. The ultimate goal of such regulations is to bring all third-party access under the same compliance controls required for employees so that there’s consistency across the entire workforce and violations can be mitigated quickly.

Today, we expect companies to push their suppliers, vendors and partners to implement more stringent security controls. In the long run, however, such approaches are unsustainable, since it’s difficult, if not impossible, to enforce standards across a third-party organization. Hence, the focus will need to shift to ensuring that identity-based perimeters are robust enough to identify and manage threats that third parties may pose.

Currently, decentralized identity solutions are moving into the mainstream. As these technologies become more widely accepted, they’ll continue to mature. This will help many organizations streamline third-party management in the future. It will also assist companies on their journey toward zero trust-compatible identity postures. Incorporating ongoing security monitoring and implementing continuous identity verification systems will also become increasingly important. 

Five steps to mitigate third-party risk today

Today’s challenges are complex but not unsolvable. Here are five steps organizations can take to improve third-party access governance over the short term.

1) Consolidate third-party management. This process can begin with finance and procurement. Anyone with any contract to provide services to any department in the company should be identified and cataloged in an authoritative system of record that includes information on the access privileges assigned to external users. 

Security teams should test for stale accounts and deprovision any that are no longer needed or in use. In addition, they should assign sponsorship and joint accountability to third-party administrators.

2) Institute vetting and risk-aware onboarding processes. Both the organization and its supplier/vendor need to determine workflows for vetting and onboarding third-party users to ensure they are who they say they are — and that their onboarding process follows the principle of least privilege. Implementing a self-service portal where third-party users can request access and provide required documentation can smooth the path to productivity. Access decisions should be based on risk.  

3) Define and refine policies and controls. The organization — and its vendors and suppliers — should continuously optimize policies and controls to identify potential violations and reduce false positives. Policies and controls must be tested periodically, and security teams should also review employees’ access. Over time, auto-remediation can minimize administrative overhead further.

4) Institute compliance controls for your entire workforce. Look for a third-party access governance solution that will enable consistency across employees and third-party users, especially since regulators increasingly require this. Having access to out-of-the-box compliance reports for SOX, GDPR, HIPAA and other relevant regulations makes it easier to enforce the appropriate controls and provide necessary audit documentation.

5) Implement privileged access management (PAM). Another critical step that organizations can take to boost their cybersecurity maturity is implementing a PAM solution. This will enable the organization to enforce least privileged access and zero-standing privilege automatically across all relevant accounts. 

The world of work will never again look like it did in 2019. The flexibility, agility and access to first-rate talent that businesses gain from embracing modern ways of working make the changes more than worthwhile. And enterprises can realize enormous value within today’s complex and dynamic business relationship and supplier ecosystems. They need to ensure their cybersecurity strategies can keep up by strengthening identity and third-party access governance.

Paul Mezzera is VP of Strategy at Saviynt.


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