Today’s business networks consist of numerous remote access connections from employees and outsourcing firms. Too often, the inherent security risks arising from these connections outside the network are overlooked. Continuous improvements have been made that can enhance security in today’s network infrastructure; taking particular focus on the users accessing the network externally and monitoring access end- points are critical for businesses to protect their digital assets.
Installing the correct software for the specific needs of your IT infrastructure is essential to having the best security protection possible. Many companies install “off the shelf” security software and assume they are protected. Unfortunately, that is not the case due to the nature of today’s network threats. Threats are diverse in nature, including the usual spam, spyware, viruses, trojans, worms, and the occasional possibility that a hacker has targeted your servers.
The proper security solution for your organization will neutralize virtually all of these threats to your network. Too often, with only a software package installed, network administrators spend a lot of their time at the perimeter of the network defending its integrity by manually fending off attacks and then manually patching the security breach.
Paying network administrators to defend the integrity of your network is an expensive proposition – much more so than installing the proper security solution that your network requires. Network administrators have many other responsibilities that need their attention. Part of their job is to make your business operate more efficiently – they can’t focus on this if they have to manually defend the network infrastructure all the time.
Another threat that must be considered is the threat occurring from within the perimeter, in other words, an employee. Sensitive proprietary information is most often stolen by someone on the payroll. A proper network security solution must guard against these kinds of attacks also. Network administrators definitely have their role in this area by creating security policies and strictly enforcing them.
A smart strategy to give your network the protection it needs against the various security threats is a layered security approach. Layered security is a customized approach to your network’s specific requirements utilizing both hardware and software solutions. Once the hardware and software is working simultaneously to protect your company, both are able to instantaneously update their capabilities to handle the latest in security threats.
Security software can be configured to update multiple times a day if the need be; hardware updates usually consist of firmware upgrades and an update wizard much like that present within the software application.
All-in-one Security Suites A multi-pronged strategy should be implemented to combat the multiple sources of security threats in today’s corporate networks. Too often, the sources of these threats are overlapping with Trojans arriving in spam or spyware hidden within a software installation. Combating these threats requires the use of firewalls, anti-spyware, malware and anti-spam protection.
Recently, the trend in the software industry has been to combine these previously separate security applications into an all-encompassing security suite. Security applications standard on corporate networks are integrating into security suites that focus on a common goal. These security suites contain antivirus, anti-spyware, anti-spam, and firewall protection all packaged together in one application. Searching out the best stand-alone applications in each security risk category is still an option, but no longer a necessity.
The all-in-one security suite will save a company money in reduced software purchasing costs and time with the ease of integrated management of the various threat sources.
Trusted Platform Module (TPM) A TPM is a standard developed by the Trusted Computing Group defining hardware specifications that generate encryption keys. TPM chips not only guard against intrusion attempts and software attacks but also physical theft of the device containing the chip. TPM chips work as a compliment to user authentication to enhance the authentication process.
Authentication describes all processes involved in determining whether a user granted access to the corporate network is, in fact, who that user claims to be. Authentication is most often granted through use of a password, but other techniques involve biometrics that uniquely identify a user by identifying a unique trait no other person has such as a fingerprint or characteristics of the eye cornea.
Today, TPM chips are often integrated into standard desktop and laptop motherboards. Intel began integrating TPM chips into its motherboards in 2003, as did other motherboard manufactures. Whether or not a motherboard has this chip will be contained within the specifications of that motherboard.
These chips encrypt data on the local level, providing enhanced security at a remote location such as the WiFi hotspot full of innocent looking computer-users who may be bored hackers with malicious intent. Microsoft’s Ultimate and Enterprise versions of the Vista Operating System utilize this technology within the BitLocker Drive Encryption feature.
While Vista does provide support for TPM technology, the chips are not dependent upon any platform to function.
TPM has the same functionality on Linux as it does within the Windows operating system. There are even specifications from Trusted Computing Group for mobile devices such as PDAs and cell phones.
To use TPM enhanced security, network users only need to download the security policy to their desktop machine and run a setup wizard that will create a set of encryption keys for that computer. Following these simple steps significantly improves security for the remote computer user.
Admission Based on User Identity Establishing a user’s identity depends upon successfully passing the authentication processes. As previously mentioned user authentication can involve much more than a user name and password. Besides the emerging biometrics technology for user authentication, smart cards and security tokens are another method that enhances the user name/password authentication process.
The use of smart cards or security tokens adds a hardware layer requirement to the authentication process. This creates a two-tier security requirement, one a secret password and the other a hardware requirement that the secure system must recognize before granting access.
Tokens and smart cards operate in essentially the same fashion but have a different appearance. Tokens take on the appearance of a flash drive and connection through a USB port while smart cards require special hardware, a smart card reader, that connects to the desktop or laptop computer. Smart cards often take on the appearance of an identification badge and may contain a photo of the employee.
However authentication is verified, once this happens a user should be granted access through a secure virtual network (VLAN) connection. A VLAN establishes connections to the remote user as if that person was a part of the internal network and allows for all VLAN users to be grouped together within distinct security policies.
Remote users connecting through a VLAN should only have access to essential network resources and how those resources can be copied or modified should be carefully monitored.
Specifications established by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) have resulted in what is known as the secure VLAN (S-VLAN) architecture. Also commonly referred to as tag-based VLAN, the standard is known as 802.1q. It enhances VLAN security by adding an extra tag within media access control (MAC) addresses that identify network adapter hardware within a network. This method will prevent unidentified MAC addresses from accessing the network.
Network Segmentation This concept, working hand-in-hand with VLAN connections, determines what resources a user can access remotely using policy enforcement points (PEPs) to enforce the security policy throughout the network segments. Furthermore, the VLAN, or S-VLAN, can be treated as a separate segment with its own PEP requirements.
PEP works with a user’s authentication to enforce the network security policy. All users connecting to the network must be guaranteed by the PEP that they meet the security policy requirements contained within the PEP. The PEP determines what network resources a user can access, and how these resources can be modified.
The PEP for VLAN connections should be enhanced from what the same user can do with the resources internally. This can be accomplished through network segmentation simply be defining the VLAN connections as a separate segment and enforcing a uniform security policy across that segment. Defining a policy in this manner can also define what internal network segments the client can access from a remote location.
Keeping VLAN connections as a separate segment also isolates security breaches to that segment if one were to occur. This keeps the security breach from spreading throughout the corporate network. Enhancing network security even further, a VLAN segment could be handled by it’s own virtualized environment, thus isolating all remote connections within the corporate network.
Centralized Security Policy Management Technology hardware and software targeting the different facets of security threats create multiple software platforms that all must be separately managed. If done incorrectly, this can create a daunting task for network administration and can increase staffing costs due to the increased time requirements to manage the technologies (whether they be hardware and/or software).
Integrated security software suites centralize the security policy by combining all security threat attacks into one application, thus requiring only one management console for administration purposes.
Depending on the type of business you’re in a security policy should be used corporate-wide that is all-encompassing for the entire network. Administrators and management can define the security policy separately, but one overriding definition of the policy needs to be maintained so that it is uniform across the corporate network. This ensures there are no other security procedures working against the centralized policy and limiting what the policy was defined to implement.
Not only does a centralized security policy become easier to manage, but it also reduces strain on network resources. Multiple security policies defined by different applications focusing on one security threat can aggregately hog much more bandwidth than a centralized security policy contained within an all-encompassing security suite. With all the threats coming from the Web, ease of management and application is essential to maintaining any corporate security policy.
Frequently asked Questions:
1. I trust my employees. Why should I enhance network security?
Even the most trusted employees can pose a risk of a network security breach. It is important that employees follow established company security standards. Enhancing security will guard against lapsing employees and the occasional disgruntled employee seeking to cause damage to the network.
2. Do these innovations really create a secure environment for remote access?
Yes they do. These enhancements not only greatly enhance a secure VLAN connection but they also use widely accepted standards that are often integrated into common hardware and software. It’s there, your company only needs to start using the technology.
3. My company is happy with using separate software, that way each application can focus on a separate security threat. Why should I consider an all-in-one security suite?
Many of the popular software applications commonly used by businesses have expanded their focus to identify all security threats. This includes solutions from both software and hardware appliance technology manufacturers. Many of these firms saw the need to consolidate security early on and purchased smaller software firms to gain that knowledge their firm was lacking. A security suite at the application level, will make management much easier and your IT staff will thank you for it.
4. Do I need to add a hardware requirement to the authentication process?
Requiring the use of security tokens or smart cards should be considered for employees accessing the company network from a remote site. Particularly if that employee needs to access sensitive company information while on the road, a simple flash drive secure token prevents a thief from accessing that sensitive data on a stolen laptop.
5. With all this concern about WiFi hotspots should employees be required not to use these locations to connect to the company network?
WiFi hotspots have sprung up nationwide and present the easiest method for your remote employees to access the Internet. Unfortunately, hotspots can also be full of bored, unemployed hackers who have nothing better to do than find a way to intercept a busy employee’s transmissions at the next table. That’s not to say employees on the road should avoid hotspots. That would severely limit them from accessing the network at all. With technologies like S-VLAN and secure authentication in place, a business can implement technologies to reduce threats both now and in the future.
Implementing the latest network security technologies is a high priority for IT Management. In today’s network environment with many users accessing your digital assets remotely, it’s critical to get your network security correct during the planning phase of the integration process.
Obviously, it should be noted that most large companies have multiple operating systems running (Windows, Mac O/S, etc) and that for many of these companies all-in-one security suites face certain challenges in a mixed operating system environment.
That is why I stress that you consider having layered security (both hardware and software) and don’t simply rely on software applications to protect your digital assets. As technology changes so do the opportunities for security breaches.
As these security threats become more sophisticated, hardware and software developers will continue to innovate and it’s essential businesses keep up with, and implement these technologies.
Michael G. Perry has more than 20 years’ professional experience in management, IT consulting and writing technical documentation related to business process, policies and procedures. He’s worked for Fedex, Ingram Micro and Merck Medco.