Micro-segmentation: What it is, how it works, benefits
Micro-segmentation means breaking down enterprise networks into multiple segments and using security policies to dictate how the data and applications in each segment will be accessed. These determinations are made by limiting traffic based on zero trust and least privilege principles. It provides a viable solution to flawed network security policies that weaken enterprise security.
A micro-segmentation strategy enables organizations to reduce the size of their attack surface and make their networks safer against potential breaches. It also allows them to improve incident response, contain the impact of breaches, and maintain compliance with relevant laws and regulations.
The need for micro-segmentatio
All organizations must protect their data centers with robust and effective firewall policies. Without these policies and associated security controls, smart and devious cybercriminals can easily hack into enterprise networks and systems.
Micro-segmentation provides an effective way to install strong, clean, and easily-manageable security policies that help to create a more secure on-prem or hybrid cloud environment. This environment can keep traffic safe and block potential breaches from corrupting servers or compromising data. Moreover, creating multiple logical segments that are isolated from each other and enforced with least-privileged access keeps threat actors out of the network and also helps to contain a breach if it does happen.
How micro-segmentation works
Micro-segmentation can be applied in both on-prem data centers and cloud environments. It isolates network workloads which enable security teams to create security policies. These policies dictate the type of traffic passing in and out of each micro-segment.
The policies are used to manage and create secure network segments and determine how these segments or zones will be accessed. They dictate how applications and workloads will access the resources they need, how they will share data within a system, and in which direction. Micro-segmentation also enables security teams to determine what kind of security or authentication measures are required for the environment.
There are three main micro-segmentation approaches. Micro-segmentation works differently depending on which approach is adopted.
Agent-based micro-segmentation utilizes a software agent deployed on the workload. It doesn’t rely on static network-level rules based on network ports or IP addresses. The agent allows security teams to enforce granular isolation, better control individual hosts, and implement automated segmentation policies with human-readable labels.
Agent-based micro-segmentation security solutions are infrastructure-independent so they can be deployed across both data center and cloud infrastructure. One drawback of the method is that not all workloads can have an agent installed on them. Also, attackers can exploit the trust in the network with host firewall-based micro-segmentation.
Network-based micro-segmentation leverages the network infrastructure to enforce security policies. The policies are configured and enforced using access control lists (ACLs) or IP constructs. There’s no need to deploy agents on workloads.
A drawback of this method is that the policies can only be enforced per endpoint, so network firewalls cannot distinguish between legitimate software and malware and will therefore block or allow both. Also, the policies are static, which can cause performance issues in more dynamic (e.g., cloud) environments. Finally, the approach can be complicated to manage when more granular micro-segments and a higher number of firewall rules are created.
This method depends on virtualized environments and hypervisors to create overlay networks and enforce micro-segmentation. The approach does not require network hardware changes. Also, its policy constructs are easy to learn for security teams.
The chief drawback of the approach is that it doesn’t support bare metal servers, container workloads, or public cloud environments. Also, it doesn’t provide host-level visibility into its software, processes, vulnerabilities, etc.
Examples of micro-segmentatio
One common example of micro-segmentation is the separation of development and testing environments from production environments. Granularly limiting the connections between these environments prevents careless or dangerous activities, such as using sensitive/live data for testing.
Other examples include:
- Application micro-segmentation: Restricting access to sensitive data in applications to prevent unauthorized use or malicious exfiltration
- User micro-segmentation: Leveraging user identity services to control access to applications and services
- Tier-level micro-management: Separating application components to allow only authorized users to access specific components and keep unauthorized users out
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Network segmentation vs. Micro-segmentation
Network segmentation divides the enterprise network into multiple security zones. In traditional data center environments, network segmentation is usually accomplished using firewalls, VLANs, and access control lists (ACLs). In more modern, cloud-based environments, Virtual Private Clouds (VPCs), subnets, and Security Groups (SGs). Microsoft Azure, for example, provides numerous network segmentation options, such as subscriptions (platform-powered separation between entities), virtual networks (isolated and secure networks to run virtual machines and applications), network security groups (access control mechanisms to control traffic between resources within a virtual network), and Azure firewall (a cloud-native stateful firewall-as-a-service to filter traffic flowing between cloud resources, the Internet, and on-premise). Regardless of the environment type, the zones created with network segmentation consist of multiple devices and applications. Admins can set access controls that permit only specific traffic between zones.
Micro-segmentation is a more granular form of network segmentation. It involves placing each device or application within its own logically isolated segment instead of simply breaking a network into multiple, large segments. It thus provides more granular visibility and greater control than network segmentation.
Unlike network segmentation which breaks the network based on north-south traffic (traffic running between clients and servers and crossing the security perimeter), micro-segmentation focuses on east-west traffic that moves laterally across and within the network. Moreover, it usually uses software policies and software-defined networking (SDN). With SDN, all network traffic is routed through an inspection point (e.g., a next-generation firewall) that can identify an attacker’s lateral movement and block inappropriate accesses to the network and its resources. Some SDN solutions, such as Cisco Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI), can automatically assign endpoints to logical security zones called endpoint groups (EPGs). These EPGs may have a contract that is used to control traffic flow between EPGs within the ACI fabric.
Network segmentation challenges and how micro-segmentation Helps
Dividing a network into multiple smaller segments can improve both its security and performance. Effective network segmentation allows security teams to spot an attack and act early to mitigate its impact and prevent its spread across the network.
Even so, it can be challenging to implement network segmentation. For one, dividing the network into many VLANs and subnets requires a lot of manual effort. Also, the network may need to be re-architected, which can be difficult, time-consuming, and expensive.
Micro-segmentation is a better and easier approach to securing a network, especially if host-based micro-segmentation is adopted. This is because the host-based approach is infrastructure-independent, provides more granular control, and enables micro-segmentation based on human-understandable policies instead of static network-level rules. Plus, the model can be deployed across both, cloud and data center environments without “coupling” to them.
In addition, it decouples security policy enforcement from the physical infrastructure, simplifying administration and allowing more granular control. Also, it does not require network re-architecting so it is less time-consuming, less complex, and more cost-effective than network segmentation.
Micro-segmentation: Essential for zero trust security
Micro-segmentation is increasingly used to implement zero trust security. This new security model considers all users and devices untrustworthy by default. To gain access to network resources and become “trusted”, the user or device must meet the network’s conditions, for example, undergo a virus scan or complete multi-factor authentication (MFA).
The zero trust model enables organizations to move away from traditional perimeter-based network security which is inadequate for modern-day remote workers and cloud environments. And micro-segmentation supports the model by:
- Dividing the network into smaller zones
- Creating a mini-perimeter around each endpoint to secure it individually
- Providing enhanced network visibility and stronger access controls
In sum, zero trust, and micro-segmentation work in tandem by securing workloads in dynamic environments and preventing the lateral movement of unauthorized users in the network.
The top 7 benefits of micro-segmentation
The need for micro-segmentation is increasing because it provides all these benefits:
Effective security through enhanced endpoint protection
Micro-segmentation provides effective and cost-efficient security, particularly in modern network environments that are complex, dynamic, and fast-expanding.By logically dividing the data center into distinct security segments, it enables security architects to define security controls for each segment. This then reduces the size of the attack surface and enables the organization to better resist attacks or intrusions.
Protection against network-based threats
Micro-segmentation protects networks against network-based threats like DDoS attacks and WiFI attacks. It also allows admins to implement robust controls to restrict the flow of traffic on detecting a threat.
Protection for cloud workloads and data
Micro-segmentation can secure dynamic cloud systems, workloads, and data. With granular microsegments, security teams can easily monitor cloud traffic, identify suspicious or malicious traffic, and respond quickly once they detect dangerous breaches.
Protection from advanced persistent threats (APTs)
Individual micro-segments contain security checkpoints that help to keep cyber threats from spreading across the network. So, even if one part of a network is compromised, attackers cannot move laterally and reach or persist in other parts of the network. Thus, micro-segmentation protects the network from APTs.
Improves breach containment
Even if the network is breached, security staff can contain its impact with micro-segmentation. By monitoring traffic against secure policies, they can reduce the impact of a breach as well as their response time.
Support for centralized policy management
Organizations can use micro-segmentation to create and enforce granular security policies and to centralize policy management across networks. Without it, they would have to manually manage policies across a large fleet of devices and resources, which is a complex and time-consuming task. In addition, they can enforce zero-trust security policies, where access is allowed based on need, which can reduce the organization’s cyber risk.
Endpoint separation enables regulatory compliance
Micro-segmentation using the host-based approach helps isolate separately-secured endpoints, allowing security staff to easily control the traffic in systems that are subject to regulations. Policy granularity and visibility ensure that distributed devices are always protected by unified network security and also reduce the risks of non-compliant usage.
Near-effortless micro-segmentation with AlgoSe
By utilizing AlgoSec’s micro-segmentation method of network security, businesses can immediately feel safer against possible hackers and potential data breaches. Our application workload security platform will secure your compute instances across any infrastructure and any cloud. It will also enable trusted access through automated, exhaustive context from various systems to automatically adapt security policies.
But there are always obstacles when installing new systems on existing servers, whether it’s evolving the firewalls already in place to accept the micro-segmented data center or navigating possible network segmentation pitfalls. Our team can work with you all the way from strategy to execution to ensure these challenges are met and handled with ease so your security improves and your data is confidently protected. We will make sure that all your segmentation policies will be applied beyond the native software and hardware sensors, extending them to all supported on-premise, cloud, and SDN technologies.
By using AlgoSec, you will get consistent and defense-in-depth security across your entire hybrid network. You can also maximize your current investment by leveraging existing security technologies for micro-segmentation. Plus, we will help you secure your environment in minutes rather than days or weeks. Talk to us to know more about our business-driven security management.