What is network segmentation?
Do things seem to have bled into one another over the years in your network?
Wrestling with getting devices and servers into specific areas?
Getting pushback from other teams who don’t understand why the network architecture needs to change?
This deep-dive into network segmentation strategies and security solutions highlights the risks it helps offset – and options for how to do it. Discover the technologies that make segmentation painless and which questions to ask for sound engineering decisions.
Here’s why network segmentation software is a key pillar of network security, especially in hybrid environments, and how to find the right fit for your business and compliance context.
What is network segmentation and why is it necessary?
Network segmentation is the linchpin for the ever-evolving network security landscape, dividing a network into multiple segments or subnets, each with controlled and monitored access. Its goal is to mitigate security risks, including unauthorized access, data breaches, attackers’ lateral movements, malware cross-contamination, operational errors, and network congestion.
Network segmentation also helps ensure a uniform security policy across hybrid environments, simplified regulatory audits, smoother change management, and improved network performance.
Segmenting approaches include micro-segmentation, Zero Trust security, firewalls, VLANs, SDN, NAC, and subnetting. Guiding principles you can use vary from defense in depth to the principle of least privilege, network visualization, continual monitoring, and scalability.
Which security risks does network segmentation mitigate?
Insecure devices with access to critical data
Network segmentation restricts insecure devices, like printers and IoT devices, from accessing vital data. It also helps IT managers isolate sensitive information and apply multi-layered security controls based on business needs.
Attackers’ lateral movements
Segmentation creates a complex and unpredictable network landscape, making it hard for both cybercriminals and rogue employees to navigate, escalate their privileges, and access vital company data.
Network segmentation creates data silos, limiting cross-contamination. This restricts ransomware, for instance, from abusing vulnerabilities and spreading to other systems, reducing potential damage, as each monitored segment provides a barrier against malware cyberattacks.
Exposed access to key assets
Network segmentation limits access to sensitive data, guarding against external and insider cyber threats. It substantially reduces risk by isolating each segment, with critical departments receiving enhanced access controls and monitoring. Additionally, servers with applications and databases can be confined to a separate segment behind a firewall.
Errors, rework, and application outages
Segmentation boosts network resilience by localizing issues, like errors or attacks, to the affected segment, reducing recovery effort and enhancing overall network stability. This level of confinement also reduces the duplicate work necessary to restore normal operations in the impacted segment.
Inconsistent segmentation and separation
With the right solution, network segmentation makes it easier to maintain a uniform security policy across entire on-premise, hybrid, and multi-cloud environments (AWS, Azure, Google Cloud, etc.). A clear, documented segmentation strategy can also reduce pushback from other teams, becoming easier to manage.
Broad scope of regulatory audits
Pulling together data for audits from a flat network takes extra effort. Segmentation helps create a better reporting structure and reduces the scope of auditing requirements, making it easier to build reports about particular sets of users.
Inconsistent, interrupted compliance
You can effectively enforce a network segmentation strategy, informed by compliance needs, using automated tools. These tools streamline policy maintenance across micro-segments, identify and flag non-compliance, and make it easy to demonstrate compliance.
Unscalable change management
Effective network segmentation fosters a scalable, repeatable change management process. It allows isolated modifications, limiting unintended effects and simplifying rollbacks. You can replicate standardized security controls across new segments, boosting scalability and efficiency.
Network congestion and poor performance
Segmentation improves network performance by reducing traffic, isolating network issues, optimizing bandwidth allocation, and confining broadcast traffic. These benefits contribute to making the network more reliable and easier to monitor and control.
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What are the most effective approaches to network segmentation?
Micro-segmentation offers granular control over smaller segments with strong, clean, and easily manageable security policies, enhancing on-prem or hybrid cloud security. It provides full visibility into network traffic flows between workloads and individual applications. Unlike network segmentation, it focuses on east-west traffic within the network, improving security against lateral movements.
However, implementing and managing micro-segmentation can be complex and costly, requiring advanced technology. Improper configuration may lead to performance issues, while troubleshooting network problems becomes more challenging in highly segmented ecosystems.
Zero Trust is a cybersecurity framework that verifies all access to corporate assets, assuming no implicit trust in users, devices, or systems. This security model provides a restrictive approach to security, which segmentation owners can use in their new network design. You can implement Zero Trust policies if you choose advanced security technologies that can offset the need for specialized skills.
On the downside, stringent access controls can affect user experience, and legacy systems may require significant modifications. Also, continuous authentication and inspection may result in performance issues.
In network segmentation, firewalls act as gatekeepers, enforcing access policies, integrating intrusion prevention systems, and logging traffic data. They enable virtual segmentation, offering customized security controls without extra hardware.
However, firewalls also pose challenges: complex rule management, potential performance impact, limited visibility into encrypted traffic, high costs, misconfiguration risks, and less emphasis on internal threats. That is unless you choose a firewall management solution that can take care of all of that.
VLANs (Virtual Local Area Networks)
Virtual Local Area Networks (VLANs) are a popular choice for network segmentation to boost security and keep costs under control. When properly configured, they provide an extra layer of network protection.
However, improper configuration, like physical segmentation or loose IP addresses assignment, can undermine their effectiveness and enable users to bypass segmentation. Moreover, data may become scattered across VLANs if users copy information for convenience, potentially exposing confidential data.
Software-Defined Networking (SDN)
Software-defined networking (SDN) empowers engineers to create, configure, and manage network segments dynamically. This centralized approach allows them to shape traffic, do automatic load balancing, and on-demand provisioning, and enhance network agility.
However, implementing SDN introduces complexities in network security management. Transitioning from datacenter firewalls to software-defined security policies requires a more granular, scalable, and agile approach. Micro-segmentation becomes crucial for preventing lateral infiltration, but it’s challenging to enforce and maintain the security policies for it. Regulatory compliance and auditing obligations also add to the complexity.
Network Access Control (NAC)
Network Access Control (NAC) simplifies segmentation by controlling access based on rules and policies, and assessing each device’s identity and security status. Safe and authorized devices gain access, often to a segment fitting the user’s role.
However, NAC systems can be complex to implement, potentially disrupting users and posing management challenges. They may also result in false positives or false negatives and face compatibility issues with certain devices or systems.
Subnetting divides a network into manageable, smaller parts, improving performance and security through efficient traffic management and reduced congestion.
Without a solution for managing subnets properly, risks include scalability issues – if not initially planned well – inefficient IP utilization, and needs routing for inter-subnet communication, which adds another layer of complexity and potential latency.
Which principles drive effective network segmentation?
- Defense in depth is a layered security strategy that uses firewalls, intrusion prevention systems, and robust access controls to ensure protection at multiple stages of a potential network intrusion. To apply it, you’ll need a deep understanding of applications and their dependencies and to leverage automation for effective policy management.
- The Principle of Least Privilege (POLP) restricts access to only what’s essential, creating an efficient network segmentation environment where segments connect to just the necessary network areas based on legitimate needs.
- Network visualization is essential for achieving real-time control over all the network segments, irrespective of the segmentation strategy you choose or the diversity of your hybrid environment.
- Continual monitoring and review is also important to ensure your network segmentation strategy remains effective. Automation capable of conducting ongoing reviews and updates and notify engineers of emerging issues becomes indispensable.
- Scalability and flexibility are worth including in your network segmentation design since the beginning to ensure room for growth and the ability to adapt to changes in the organization’s structure or needs.
21 questions that help you get network segmentation right
To properly design, implement, and maintain a secure, resilient, high-performance hybrid network, security teams need to answer these questions to anticipate and plan for the key milestones on their network segmentation journey.
- What is the current state of your network? How is it structured? What are its strengths and weaknesses?
- Do you have a comprehensive, up-to-date inventory of your network endpoints?
- By which criteria are your security zones defined? Do you use data sensitivity, devices’ functions, user groups, or other factors to distinguish between security areas?
- Which protocols and services are running on your network? What kind of protection measures do protocols and services currently in use need to be secured and segmented effectively?
- How will segmentation interact with existing security measures (firewalls, intrusion detection systems, encryption protocols, etc.)?
- What types of data does the network handle, and where is this data stored?
- Who are people responsible for managing those systems?
- Who needs access to what?
- What is the potential impact of a security breach in your network?
- What are the business needs and concerns? Which constraints does your organization have? How can network segmentation support business goals and operations?
- What are the compliance requirements? How can network segmentation help the organization meet the industry regulations or standards that it needs to comply with?
- How can the network be segmented? Based on your company and network profiles, which methods and technologies best fit your specific needs and context?
- How will you document all permitted services and protocols and who will do this?
- How will segmentation policies impact network performance?
- How will you test for network segmentation effectiveness? For instance, how will you know if network segments communicate with each other?
- What is your strategy for handling inter-segment traffic?
- How does segmentation affect disaster recovery plans and operations?
- How does network segmentation impact incident detection and response?
- How will you monitor, maintain, and update the network segments?
- How will you handle the potential increase in complexity that comes with network segmentation?
- How do you plan to educate users about the changes and their responsibilities?
10 KPIs to measure success in network segmentation
You’re already pursuing network segmentation for its ability to give you more control, stronger visibility, easier reporting, and, most of all, stronger security. But perhaps it’s difficult to articulate the KPIs through which you will demonstrate success to business executives and other teams in your organization.
When looking for the right technology partner to support you on this journey, consider if they have the ability to help you measure and improve these key metrics:
- Incident detection time: track how segmentation decreases this KPI by providing sweeping visibility into the network.
- Incident response time: record when segmentation helps you contain incidents faster to use as examples of progress.
- Breach impact: seek to compare how far impact from post-segmentation breaches travels into the network versus its pre-segmentation period.
- Unauthorized access attempts: a decrease in this metric can indicate that your segmentation strategy is working well.
- Compliance score: a higher percentage of network segmentation controls that meet compliance requirements is a clear indicator of success in this area.
- User compliance rate: measuring the growing percentage of users who adhere to the new network rules and guidelines after segmentation can also indicate a successful implementation.
- Inter-segment traffic: showing that the volume of traffic moving between different network segments is minimal proves the effectiveness of your strategy.
- Traffic volume: showing a reduction in unnecessary traffic and improved network performance are indicative of proper segmentation.
- Change management efficiency: a drop in the time it takes to implement changes or updates to network segments without causing disruptions or security incidents is another way to demonstrate success.
- Asset inventory accuracy: the level of accuracy and freshness of your inventory of network assets is yet another way to prove efficient segmentation.
How AlgoSec helps you reap the benefits of network segmentation
IT directors, network engineers, and security specialists in charge of global, complex networks rely on AlgoSec for precise, controlled access to all their network segments, no matter how diverse their environments are.
NCR manages the security of its entire network with AlgoSec
For instance, AlgoSec has proven to be a strategic component in managing the network security for NCR Corporation’s over 36,000 employees in 160 countries. They rely on it to manage application connectivity across their entire network, including in the public cloud, Cisco ACI, and physical firewalls. “Most products don’t understand the end-to-end environment. AlgoSec does,” noted Scott Theriault, Global Manager, Network Perimeter Security.
NCR used AlgoSec to migrate their on-premises data centers into the Cisco ACI fabric and then extend micro-segmentation across it. They also got a unified view of their global security posture, automated their risk analysis, streamlined their auditing with automatic logging, and optimized their firewall policies.
“We need tools like AlgoSec to assist us in the journey because most application owners don’t know what access is needed. This tool helps them learn what needs to be implemented to reduce the attack surface,” stated Theriault.
10 AlgoSec capabilities that make segmentation painless
Here are some ways you can leverage AlgoSec’s capabilities to successfully implement your network segmentation strategy:
- Traffic flow mapping with AlgoSec AutoDiscovery helps you clearly visualize all your network traffic. AutoDiscovery receives network traffic metadata as NetFlow, SFlow, or full packets and then digests multiple streams of traffic metadata to give you a comprehensive, real-time map.
- Streamlined enforcement makes it simple to define and enforce network segmentation across all major firewall platforms by validating that existing network security policies align with your segmentation strategy.
- Intelligent automation prevents manual errors and streamlines network segmentation. It ensures that security policies get correctly applied across all segments, making the network safer and easier to manage.
- Proactive strategy alignment means AlgoSec ensures any changes align with both the network segmentation strategy and compliance requirements, so they don’t disrupt either, nor introduce risks.
- Integration with major platforms allows you to integrate with micro-segmentation tools like Cisco Tetration, Illumio, and Guardicore
- Supports software-defined micro-segmentation by integrating with the leading SDN platforms like Cisco ACI and VMWare NSX, which enhances interoperability and flexibility across your entire environment.
- Application discovery creates an up-to-date inventory of applications and their connectivity flows – without prior knowledge – making it much simpler to design your segmentation zones.
- Zero Trust acceleration provides a map of transaction flows and enables automated, risk-free security policy changes. AlgoSec also monitors traffic and provides crucial network intelligence to identify potential breaches.
- Accurate, up-to-date business intelligence makes decision-making much more effective as the network environment evolves. It also creates a scalable and repeatable process that aligns business leaders with the IT, security, and compliance teams.
The State of Utah eliminates human error with automation
“We evaluated several other products but none of them really automated at the level that we wanted,” said the director of IT. “AlgoSec’s automation really stood out.”
Protecting over 22,000 telephones, 20,000 desktop computers, 2,400 servers, and 1,300 online is a big task. Monitoring over 4 million visits to Utah.gov per month,and securing against more than 500 million daily IT intrusions attempts makes it even more intimidating.
But the State of Utah experienced a host of benefits from implementing AlgoSec’s Security Management solution across their entire network. It helped them manage security policies much faster, improve their service delivery, and achieve stronger network segmentation. They were able to deploy Algosec quickly, speed up employee onboarding, reduce the time to implement large rule requests, and eliminate human error – thanks to policy automation.
“I’ve been able to jump in and use AlgoSec. It’s been really intuitive”, said the department’s Director of Information Technology.
Nationwide uses AlsoSec automation to consolidate and harden its network
Nationwide, a Fortune 100 financial services company headquartered in Ohio, has reaped significant benefits from AlgoSec’s automation capabilities.
Tasked with deploying security-related systems across the entire Nationwide network, Todd Sharer, Systems Engineer, highlights three key areas in which they’ve seen massive progress by using AlgoSec:
- Consolidation that helped them get an accurate view of Nationwide’s policy, derived from the data directly sourced from the network devices.
- Automatic policy changes and removals streamlined policy revisions, reducing the time they take from 10 days to within hours or even instant results.
- Real-time data feeds for risk management, audit, and compliance partners made completing policy recertifications easier, more transparent, and a lot more efficient.
“AppViz is bringing tremendous value in the recertification use case. Having that all consolidated in one view has just been amazing and we’re getting a lot of good feedback from our app owners on that,” said Todd Sharer.
How to get started with network segmentation?
Jumpstart network segmentation with a clear understanding of your traffic flows and their application ties, using either CSV files, integration with tools like Cisco Tetration, or AlgoSec’s AutoDiscovery for precise traffic mapping.
With just a basic segmentation into 3-5 zones, you can fortify your network against attacks, lock down sensitive data, and deploy advanced attack isolation strategies. And that’s just the start – further segmentation only creates a more elaborate maze that frustrates attackers!