When a Revolutionary New System Fell Short

When Honeywell’s Cyber Security division launched a new product, initially customers were thrilled. The product – Secure Media Exchange (SMX) – addressed a common vulnerability in secure industrial plants: safely transferring files in areas of the plant without internet access. These “air-gapped” areas lack connectivity for security reasons but face additional threats since insecure thumb drives are often used for file transfers.

Infiltration by infected thumb drives aren’t simply a novel concern. The famed Stuxnet virus, carried into Iran’s nuclear power plant in Natanz, was blamed for destroying nearly a thousand uranium enriching centrifuges – all from an infected thumb drive carried into the plant.

For the SMX, Honeywell envisioned a two-part system, engineered to prevent disasters like that which occurred in Iran. First, a hardened device outside the air-gapped secure area would scan every thumb drive for malware, then stamp it with a security signature.

Next, specialized software would be deployed on computers inside the air-gapped secure areas to disable the thumb drive unless it carried the security stamp. Moreover, to protect against cyber-theft, SMX made thumb drives readable at the plant, but non-readable outside the plant, unless the thumb drive was “checked out” at the device after use.

While SMX succeeded at preventing malware from coming into secure areas and sensitive information from leaving, Honeywell felt there was an opportunity for even more.

An Inefficient and Inconsistent Customer Experience

Though SMX was extremely effective at stopping malware, the first version did little to communicate what it was actually doing. In fact, the only user interface the device had was to show how to plug in the USB drive. This left no option for customers to see what thumb drives had been scanned or the status of scanned drives. Though SMX had a cloud-based back end to process and record information, users were unaware of what information was being gathered or where it was being sent.

This being the case, customers had no way of knowing if there was a suspected threat or even if the device was working properly. In order to receive a report on activity, customers had to contact the company to open the database directly to manipulate data and download records. Not only was this tedious and time consuming, but it led to inconsistent reporting and data entry errors.

In summation, SMX could have been doing a stellar job of protecting a facility, but users lacked the knowledge to understand whether there was even a threat in the first place.

Honeywell envisioned a better solution: building a cloud portal for customers to be able to see records of the data and manage it on their own. They were ready to dive into Industry 4.0 and explore options utilizing the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). However, since their developers were already consumed with the core product, they didn’t have enough bandwidth to tackle such a significant new project. Plus, they needed to call on additional expertise to write the commercial-grade web application their customers were requesting.

That’s where Ascendle came in.

A Vision for a Better Solution

To ensure alignment from the beginning, Ascendle and Honeywell first started with a strategy engagement. After talking through a vision for the solution, we created user stories to manage the software requirements, envisioning both how and when users would like to access SMX information for data review and analysis.

Using a prototyping tool called InVision, we developed a user interface visual mockup that utilized the company’s corporate standards and style guidelines.

Six weeks later, we concluded the strategy engagement phase with a clear software development plan and a clickable prototype for the application. A robust backlog of features had been prioritized, and the Ascendle team was ready to begin the build.

A Shippable Product Within Weeks

Given the high interest in cybersecurity, time was of the essence to stay in front of market demand. Since this was Honeywell’s first experience with utilizing a software development partner to build a customer-facing application, we wanted to make sure they were comfortable with the process and results. The initial engagement was set for a brief 16 weeks with the goal of creating a minimum viable product (MVP) in that timeframe.

Like many Ascendle projects, we utilized a two-week Scrum sprint throughout the project. During the very first production sprint, we produced the basics of the application, including key portions of the homepage. Not only was the application real and functional, but we tied it into the client’s cloud database to include demonstration data. During each sprint that followed, we added more and more functionality.

After the first three sprints, Honeywell was thrilled to discover that SMX now had a working interface to go along with their groundbreaking hardware. Rather than showing a simple mock-up for design feedback, they already had a fully coded, tested and reviewed, bug-free version.

To keep forward momentum progressing, Ascendle provided Honeywell with their own private demo environment, where updates were deployed to the code at the end of each sprint.

These iterative releases were immensely powerful, allowing for functional software to be shared with internal stakeholders and prospective customers, generating both feedback and interest from the field.

Before the initial engagement was even halfway complete, the client renewed the contract with Ascendle. Since then, the SMX platform has undergone several iterations, each pushing the product further.

Faster Than Expected

As is the case with many clients who choose Ascendle, Honeywell’s initial concern was the speed at which their custom software would be completed. Moreover, they wanted to understand the software development process utilized, and receive timely updates so that necessary pivots and iterations could be made along the way.

In the end, the solution for the SMX platform was delivered both on time and on budget. And thanks to the transparency of the Scrum process, the client always knew what was completed, what was in process and what remained.

Most importantly, the solution answered a key customer pain point and led to greater satisfaction of the client’s existing customers, as well as aided in new sales. Honeywell shared with Ascendle that more than once, the availability of the cloud portal has seemingly been the difference maker in customer purchasing decisions.

A Continuous, Innovative Partnership

The successful launch of the custom software for the SMX platform has led to a long-term, collaborative partnership with Honeywell. With each project, the Ascendle team gains a better breadth of knowledge about the client, their products, and their customers.

As an added benefit of working with Ascendle, Honeywell has adopted many of our agile processes and has turned to our team for guidance on improving project management across more of their product teams.