Micro-segmentation is usually defined as a traditional network segmentation development, which allows the mitigation of several flaws associated with older techniques. Micro-segmentation improves east-west protection and adds finer granularity.
You may remember that network segmentation has been around for some time now: it’s the method of dividing more extensive networks into smaller pieces like “subnets” or VLANs. This allows network managers to better oversee user behavior and info flow and lets them prevent unauthorized users from gaining access to sensitive data. Without segmentation, literally, any user that accesses the network could travel freely between apps and servers, creating a huge security risk.
Micro-segmentation is, in essence, similar to classic network segmentation approaches but introduces significant advancements. While traditional segmentation techniques rely more on perimeter-focused security measures, like firewalls and subnets, to create resource barriers, micro-segmentation methods use SDNs or Software Defined Network controllers at the workload level together with other tools.
In a micro-segmented network, managers have more control over the way the resources can be accessed. The devices and the apps can be managed at granular levels, which means that only specific users with specific privileges can access them. Micro-segmentation also controls north-south traffic like older segmentation forms do (like with firewalls), but east-west traffic is equally controlled as well. With a solid solution for micro-segmentation, security teams can establish particular secure zones to lock down apps and devices.
Standard segmentation creates safe subnets and VLANs, while micro-segmentation is able to achieve the same level of protection at the host or virtual machine level. All this allows security teams to scan lateral movement within networks more effectively, making it harder for attackers to access sensitive information. These features make micro-segmentation an essential building block of ZTNA (or Zero Trust Network Access) systems.
Essentially, we can speak of three main micro-segmentation types, with each of them playing a pivotal role in cybersecurity.
Often referred to as infrastructure segmentation, this method is pretty similar to traditional segmentation forms. This approach will usually divide the data center resources into ACLs (Access Control Lists) and VLANs (Virtual Local Area Networks) or IP constructs to establish user access parameters.
In essence, standard network micro-segmentation isn’t a fine-tuned solution because it functions at the VLAN level. Still, it’s easy to use, and most experts are familiar with it. And while that may be the case, leaving the network in this “standard” state can lead to the formation of risky security gaps and less than optimal east-west traffic surveillance. If security teams want to increase their influence over the networks, the IP constructs can become unwieldy, which can potentially lead to serious network bottlenecks, leaving experts to use alternative micro-segmentation methods that are better at balancing speed, control, and cost.
In this setup, all info and data go through a hypervisor creating a virtual security environment that overlays the network security architecture. Virtual machines can emulate SDNs, offering impeccable segmentation for VMware infrastructure-dependent networks. Still, this approach isn’t the best for cloud-based networks and bare-metal systems.
Host Agent Micro-Segmentation
This approach locates SDN agents both in hosts and network endpoints that deliver feedback to the centralized management tools, providing access control at the very device level. This allows managers to monitor how the data flows across the entire network properly. With this approach, security managers can simply install different agents into the cloud, hybrid, and bare-metal settings for complete protection, but each host will need an agent. After that, security experts can set the preferred access privileges for each role and further segment the network as needed.
While this method helps greatly with security, it can also make the network overly complex and may lead to network throttling as the number of devices grows. To keep the system working optimally, security experts ensure that the agents are updated as the system grows. Still, the host agent approach is rather convenient in the case of remote working devices, as it can be easily used with existing security tools.
This advanced approach focuses on eliminating threats in the application environment at the micro-surface. With application micro-segmentation, you create logical boundaries to detect micro surface threats and eliminate lateral threat migration based on a deep level of application contextual information.
How Does it Work?
For the most part, host-based and hypervisor segmentation relies on SDN controllers creating secure segments that can be distributed across the network. The SDNs create an overlay or virtual network where they actually emulate physical networks. They disseminate security policies to all devices, applications, and endpoints. The tunneling protocols enable secure host-data center connections within this virtualized system.
The access control to the data resources is protected with multi-factor authentication, and the individualized security protocols determine what users can and can’t do in the network. If a user breaches one of those policies, the managers will be instantly notified. As mentioned above, micro-segmentation happens at the workload level, meaning that in the case of a breach, teams can contain any threats in time, limiting the number of damage attackers can cause. This also means that teams are able to secure remote data centers and workstations.
The software-like nature of this approach ensures that security teams can adjust the controls to reflect the changes in the network’s architecture. From adding new devices to locking down cloud resources, security managers can also add edge protection and have total flexibility.
Apart from those mentioned above, here are five more benefits of this approach.
APT or Advanced Persistent Threat Defense
Threats may come in several forms, and unfortunately, most of them are hard to detect in time. These threats can potentially debilitate companies and organizations that hold sensitive data. Advanced Persistent Threats are moving along the network with the aim of attacking specific entities. Micro-segmentation can make the resources inaccessible to these threats, often by stopping CNC communication and data exfiltration.
Effortless Environment Separation
Data breaches may happen when unmonitored production data moves into the development environment. In the past, environment separation in order to limit access to sensitive information has been challenging and time-consuming. However, with the introduction of micro-segmentation, environment separation has become more straightforward as the network is segmented by tagging resources hosting apps or workloads. Micro-segmentation enables security teams to use the advantages of reusable server roles, app and environment tags, security templates, and more for better control and full visibility.
Simple Security and Secure App Access
Micro-segmentation products may also help experts create reusable security policy templates. These can dictate user access privileges and communication between the workloads of different environments. This can save countless hours from performing manual configuration, and organizations can use the same templates for compliance and security in every environment created.
Also, with micro-segmentation, security teams can introduce a new layer of security when it comes to accessing applications. More specifically, a level two micro-segmentation protocol enables the creation of flexible policy controls that are able to adapt to user identity, location, and user role.
Ensuring compliance can be challenging, even if an organization uses the latest security protocols and systems. However, micro-segmentation is able to help in this area as well. This approach simplifies complex compliance regulations like HIPPA, PCI-DSS, or GDPR.
Hybrid Environment Visibility
Micro-segmentation solutions are often looked at as products that provide an in-depth view of traffic in data centers and resources that eliminate the use of several monitoring solutions. This can especially be crucial in the case of hybrid and bare-metal environments where constant monitoring is crucial.
As mentioned above, micro-segmentation presents an approach that aims to fix the problems and difficulties related to older segmentation methods. Still, as with every protection measure, micro-segmentation also has its set of challenges and might not suit every single system and network. Also, you may consider advanced application level micro-segmentation provided by Avocado to detect and mitigate zero-day attacks that can prevent data exfiltration or remote-control execution attacks.
The best bet is always to find a solution that makes the most sense in a given environment and with the security team to be familiar with the solution enough to bring the most out of its capabilities.