IT security is all about keeping data isolated from everyone except those who need access. When you think about it that way, it’s easy to understand why it’s such a vital component of network security. For example, VLANs (virtual local area networks) are a popular form of segmentation that are often coupled with other forms of segmentation like with firewalls and ACLs (access control lists), as part of an IT security solution.
However, the emergence of hybrid clouds and virtualized data centers have fundamentally shifted how IT gets done and traditional segmentation approaches just can’t keep up. VLANs are unable to extend to cloud configurations and limited to only supporting 4096 segments. Standard firewalls and ACLs can effectively only block or allow ingress and egress traffic based on a limited set of criteria. Simply put, traditional forms of network segmentation weren’t designed to address the challenges of hybrid cloud.
New approaches are needed, and that’s where micro segmentation comes in.
What Is Micro Segmentation?
Micro segmentation is an increasingly adopted security method that is able to provide security controls at the workload and process level for cloud and datacenter environments. In contrast, older network segmentation methods divide a network into sub networks for hosts that share risk profiles and connectivity needs and application segmentation provides Layer 4 security for hosts used for a specific business process.
Micro segmentation operates in a similar way conceptually, with the added benefit of granularity down to the process level. This enables a full view of a network environment along with the ability to implement security policies that have the precision of Layer 7 (processes). This increased level of precision in segmentation enables a highly flexible, secure, and scalable approach to IT security. To understand why this matters, consider the fact that VLANs and traditional firewalls are effectively “blind” to what processes are sending traffic from a given network node, making it highly difficult or impossible to determine if the source of traffic is malicious or not.
Micro segmentation can solve this problem and mitigate the lateral movement of security breaches.
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How micro segmentation fits into the modern network
The first step to incorporating micro segmentation within an organization is to gather and analyze data about the resources and process of the environment in which it will affect to provide a baseline of operations. This is generally accomplished through the use of network and host sensors searching for Layer 4 and Layer 7 information. To help streamline this process, advanced micro segmentation platforms are equipped with automated processes for datacenter and cloud integration. Once this baseline is created, malicious activity is much easier to identify.
During micro segmentation provisioning, labels are applied to nodes in the network. This entails identifying environment, regulatory sensitivity, application types, and role (e.g. production, PC, domain controller, web server) details. These labels will serve as the basis for policy decisions and increase the amount of visibility security teams have over their networks.
This level of visibility helps to identify the dependencies of applications enabling increased malicious activity monitoring, rapid containment responses, and micro segmentation policy creation for prevention of predicted and previously encountered threats.
Micro Segmentation Benefits
As mentioned, once you have a baseline for expected traffic and behavior on a network, micro segmentation-based solutions can detect, contain, and mitigate or prevent the spread of threats. In instances where the creation of a baseline based on existing traffic proves impractical, IT teams can still use micro segmentation to quickly identify unrecognized activities to limit the spread of breaches.
Additionally, enabling notification of security policy violations provides an organization’s network team with preemptive data in order to modify existing rules and processes to prevent unauthorized activities, allowing a proactive approach for future malicious behavior.
Breach containment is another concern for IT professionals with cloud services creating a number of ingress and egress points on a network and DevOps philosophies garnering a large foothold in the industry. In the event a resource within a network environment is compromised from an attack, oftentimes the intrusion will attempt lateral movement from its entry point to cause additional damage.
With micro segmentation practices in place, activities and processes are scrutinized against predefined security policies, enabling real time responses to any malicious actions observed, which also mitigates the severity of an attack. When using this granular process level form of security, the surface of attacks, which often move laterally within an infrastructure via exploited nodes, can also be reduced to minimize the level of the intrusion.
Regulation & Compliance
Micro segmentation is also an ideal instrument for industry (e.g. HIPAA, PCI) and jurisdictional (e.g. GDPR, data residency) regulation management, which is beneficial as companies and organizations migrate to cloud platforms surrendering physical control of where information is stored. This is accomplished via configured policies isolating systems bound by regulations from the remainder of the infrastructure and governing system communications within regulatory conditions.
The takeaway: micro segmentation enables a modern approach to IT security
As we have seen, micro segmentation is a significant improvement over traditional approaches to network segmentation. As network infrastructures and hybrid clouds continue to evolve so will the requirements to secure them. Selecting a platform-independent micro segmentation methodology can help you modernize your approach to IT security while enabling ease of integration and future-proofing your network.