The University of Derby provides industry-relevant, expert teaching, from undergraduate degrees to postgraduate study and research. The university’s academics were recently ranked among the most highly cited scientists in the world by Stanford University, and the university was ‘Higher Education Institution of the Year’ at the 2020 NEON Awards.
The university and the wider UK higher education community are at a tipping point. According to the Jisc cyber impact report,1 it is no longer a case of ‘if’ a security incident will hit institutions—it’s ‘when’. Jisc’s computer security incident response team (Janet Network CSIRT), for example, is recording up to 6,000 incidents every year, including more than 1,000 denial-of-service attacks on the Janet network, targeting 236 members.
Higher education institutions are struggling to keep up, Jisc reveals. IT staff are being diverted from everyday tasks to resolve data breaches, and incident recovery costs are spiralling. Another Jisc finding2 is that “recovery is challenging, time consuming and expensive.” A lengthy rebuild of a digital estate could easily consume several million pounds, according to Jisc.
The University of Derby is not standing still. Following a recent security audit that identified shortcomings in security, including endpoints and areas of the network, the institution is taking decisive action to reimagine and bolster its cybersecurity ecosystem.
1. Cyber impact, Jisc, 9 November 2020, https://www.jisc.ac.uk/reports/cyber-impact.
2. Henry Hughes, “Ransomware: what’s the impact and how can we stop it?” Jisc, 2 July 2021,
Striving to protect its endpoints, infrastructure, and cloud environment, the university’s requirements and objectives included:
Working in partnership with its technology partner KHIPU Networks, the university has implemented the Palo Alto Networks Cortex® XDR™ platform, incorporated within KHIPU’s XMDR service. The service includes 24/7/365 access to KHIPU’s comprehensive security operations center (SOC).
The SOC alerts the university to incidents, analyses the root cause, mitigates attacks, and works with the university to continuously improve operations and stay in front of threats. Eaglesfield comments, “The implementation was remarkably quick, owing to the collaborative skills and professionalism of the Palo Alto Networks and KHIPU teams. We went live in just four months, working as one to achieve an on-time, on-budget deployment.”
The university has subsequently added 15 terabytes of Cortex Data Lake to collect, integrate, and normalise network traffic, including the firewall logs. Cortex XDR runs AI and machine learning to protect data, continually learning from new data sources to evolve the university’s defence. Integration with Palo Alto Networks WildFire® adds close inspection of unknown files, with intelligence automatically shared across the endpoints.
Eaglesfield says: “If the KHIPU SOC identifies a threat, we can cross-check it to ensure everything is working as it should. One of the key benefits of KHIPU’s service is that it doesn’t just collect logs and alert us; it protects against cyberthreats with a team of cybersecurity experts available to us 24/7/365.”
Recently, for example, Cortex XDR’s behaviour analytics alerted the SOC to a university endpoint transferring excessive data to an external site. The destination was not a popular upload site for endpoints, and the endpoint had not previously downloaded a large amount of data from the site. Automated investigation and mitigation identified the transfer not as malicious data exfiltration but as legitimate cross-border sharing of large volumes of research data. Given that the university’s resources are not available 24/7/365, it is very important to have visibility over activity of this sort.
The university benefits from advanced, 360-degree cyber defence across its infrastructure, proactively identifying and blocking malware, ransomware, file, and file-less attacks. Indeed, during the first two months of operation, Cortex XDR generated more than 220 incidents (10 high severity and 65 medium severity). More than 95% of all alerts were generated by the Cortex analytics component of the SOC service. All alerts are analysed and investigated by the KHIPU SOC before the university is alerted. This ensures the university isn’t overwhelmed by false-positive and low-fidelity alerts and extraneous information.
When the university issued this tender, it received proposals more than three times the cost of the Palo Alto Networks and KHIPU outcome. For a relatively small investment, the university benefits from world-class protection across its infrastructure, a 24/7/365 SOC which is fully staffed and available, incident response, and a service that continually improves. The pre-built XMDR model also frees up investments with a predictable opex model. “We are achieving all this for the equivalent cost of two FTE security staff. The KHIPU SOC team is effectively an extension of my team,” says Eaglesfield.
By standardising on the KHIPU SOC, the university benefits from a proven, pre-packaged 24/7/365 SOC. The implementation was completed within four months, with more than 400 incidents identified and resolved within the first two months of operation.
The solution enables continual improvement of the university’s security posture, including coordinated prevention from zero-day attacks. If suspected malware is deemed malicious, for example, new protection is automatically distributed to all endpoint agents and other areas being protected, such as the firewall environment.
The KHIPU SOC also monitors other higher and further educational environments, using a ‘community-wide rapid response’ approach to share new security insights across the sector and reinforce collective protection. The more institutions that join the community, the better protected the education sector will become.
Behavioural analytics and a single, connected view of security enable the university to quickly find hidden threats. Incident scoring allows the university to focus on the threats that matter and conduct internal investigations, even if endpoints are not connected to the network.
“The Palo Alto Networks and KHIPU XMDR service gets better as every day passes. It’s a great relationship and one that establishes a firm security footing for the future. The service enables us to meet our strategy of delivering a world-class SOC designed for our university and the sector,” Eaglesfield concludes.
Discover for yourself the power of Cortex and read how KHIPU Networks provides their XMDR service using Palo Alto Networks.