What is Micro-segmentation? Improving Network Security by Reducing the Attack Surface
Micro-segmentation is a network security technique that allows security architects to divide networks into multiple, smaller-sized segments, down to the individual workload level. Each individual segment or groups of segments can be managed via customized security policies.
How Does Micro-Segmentation Help?
In the traditional networking model, a great deal of effort goes into securing end points and connections to the public internet, which form the perimeter where an internal network interfaces with the outside world. Firewalls are designed to protect the internal network -- and its sensitive data -- from threats coming from the internet or other external sources. Traffic inside the firewall has traditionally been, by definition, considered “safe.” The problem with this model is that once a cybercriminal manages to breach the firewall, they can freely move around the network and cause a lot of damage. This type of perimeter-based model is like a castle with a moat – having the moat and drawbridge up may protect you from outside attackers, but it does nothing to protect you against a malicious character who is already within the castle walls.
Micro-segmentation helps by creating a lot of “small castles” instead of one big one. If a hacker manages to breach your firewall, they don’t have access to everything in your data center -- they only have access to one small segment. The attack surface is reduced, and the damage to the data center is contained to a vastly smaller footprint.
The typical data center has a number of interconnected servers. Until recently, micro-segmentation has focused on limiting damage to servers by restricting movement between servers on a network. More modern approaches are much more granular, using policy-based micro-segmentation to limit user access to only the data or apps that they need, and preventing users (or hackers who manage to get in) from accessing resources they do not have permission to use. This type of movement within the “castle,” whether from server to server or app to app is known as “lateral movement” or “East-West” traffic, and micro-segmentation is designed to restrict it.
Changes in the Business Environment Increase the Importance of Micro-Segmentation
For several years now, there has been an increasing trend to remote work. The coronavirus pandemic accelerated this trend sharply, with millions of workers suddenly accessing corporate networks remotely. Each additional connection represents an additional vulnerability, another potential route for penetrating the firewall-based perimeter defense. This increases the need for micro-segmentation, which can minimize the potential for damage if user credentials are compromised and hackers get in to the network.
Many companies have adopted a more collaborative business model, with trusted third parties, as well as employees, being granted access to corporate data centers. It’s especially important that these third parties are only permitted to access the corporate network resources for which they have been approved and that they need to know or work with.
Most businesses are now working in a cloud environment, or a hybrid cloud environment, which makes the concept of a firewall-driven perimeter defense largely obsolete. If an individual workload isn’t even hosted in your own data center, your firewall is not going to provide protection (although hopefully your cloud provider’s does), and a different approach is required.
Network segmentation is not a new concept; companies have been doing it for years. Many companies have also already moved to a system of “least privilege” under which they only grant users access, or the level of access, required for each piece of data (in other words, if a user only needs to be granted access to read something, they are not given rights to write to that file). Micro-segmentation takes the least privilege concept and extends it more broadly in the data center or hybrid cloud.
There are different ways to implement micro-segmentation. Experts recommend against using a network topology or address-based approach to network security, partly because of the administrative overhead involved.
Micro-segmentation is more efficiently implemented by developing a set of security policies and applying them via software controls.
Effective micro-segmentation takes things down to the process-level. The whole point of micro-segmentation is to block attackers from being able to engage in lateral movement within the data center or cloud environment by accessing permitted ports.
It's also important to make sure that micro-segmentation security policies are comprehensive. Some companies have suffered losses because they failed to include one-off services in legacy data centers in their micro-segmentation scheme. Network security is only as strong as the weakest link.
Micro-Segmentation and Cloud Environments
Being software and workload driven, micro-segmentation works well in cloud or hybrid environments. Most businesses now operate in a hybrid cloud setup, with some functions on servers in the corporate data center, and others in the cloud. Security controls based on physical infrastructure such as IP addresses don’t work well across cloud applications. With workload-defined micro-segmentation the policies and segmentation can be applied regardless of where the application and data are hosted.
Micro-Segmentation and Zero-Trust
The zero-trust approach to network security eliminates dependence on the assumption that users who have been verified and granted network access are safe. Zero-trust security views the world through a suspicious lens and assumes that no one and no thing inside or outside the network perimeter should be completely trusted.
Zero-trust is a network security philosophy; implementation is accomplished through a variety of tools. Micro-segmentation has an important role to play – instead of defending a perimeter, the network establishes and safeguards many limited “micro-perimeters.” In addition to micro-segmentation, traditional tools such as antivirus/anti-malware software and firewalls still have a role to play. Cutting edge techniques such as Identity and Access Management (IAM), secure remote access, Remote Browser Isolation (RBI), and Security Orchestration, Automation and Response (SOAR) leverage and/or work with micro-segmentation to translate zero-trust principles into practice.
IAM encompasses a variety of techniques that are basic to a zero-trust approach. Stepping up your game on identification by not trusting a user simply because they have a password, and requiring one or more additional forms of identification – i.e. two- or multi-factor authentication -- is an obvious application of zero-trust’s “always verify” stance. IAM typically also includes mechanisms for restricting users to resources they need, and tightly control of superusers such as system admins. Data encryption is also typically deployed both for session privacy and to ensure data security.
With many more workers working remotely in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, another weak spot in network security can be remote access. Cybercriminals are targeting RDP (Remote Desktop Protocol). Using an advanced virtual computing platform, such as Ericom Connect, can also help, especially since it provides client-less access – no worries about end users not updating their software as they are supposed to.
Remote browser isolation (RBI) extends the “zero-trust” concept to websites users might visit. Antivirus and antimalware programs can’t necessarily keep up with new threats in real-time. With RBI all web surfing is done in an isolated, one-time use container on a separate server. If an employee did click on a link that led to some malware, the malware has nowhere to go – it can’t infect either the main server or the end user’s device.
Security Orchestration, Automation and Response (SOAR) deploys a stack of software programs that collect data on security threats and respond to low-level threats in real-time, automatically and without human intervention.
Micro-segmentation is an increasingly common approach for companies seeking to protect their digital assets. By reducing the attack surface (the portions of a network accessible to an attacker) through the use of “micro-perimeters,” micro-segmentation vastly reduces the damage a cybercriminal can do by limiting lateral movement of unauthorized users from server to server, and from resource to resource.
With security policies that are software-defined and software-implemented, micro-segmentation is well suited to the hybrid cloud environments in which businesses of all sizes operate today.
A full zero-trust security approach is the best way to secure your network. Micro-segmentation is an essential element of this approach.