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Make it So: How Intent-Based Network Security Accelerates the Enterprise

Sometimes, it seems that IT and security teams just can’t win. They are judged on how quickly they can deploy their organization’s latest application or digital transformation initiative, but they’re also expected to safeguard those critical applications and data in increasingly complex hybrid networks – and in an ever more sophisticated threat landscape. That’s not an easy balancing act. 

When an enterprise rolls out a new application, or migrates a service to the cloud, it can take days or even weeks to ensure that all the servers and network segments can communicate with each other, while blocking access to hackers and unauthorized users. This is because the network fabric can include hundreds of servers and devices (such as firewalls and routers) as well as virtualized devices in public or private clouds.

When making changes to all these devices, teams need to ensure that they don’t disrupt the connectivity that supports the application, and don’t create any security gaps or compliance violations. 

Given the sheer complexity of today’s networks, it’s not too surprising that many organizations struggle with doing this. Our 2019 survey of managing security in hybrid and multi-cloud environments found that over 42% of organizations had experienced application or network outages caused by simple human errors or misconfigurations. 

Moreover, most organizations already have large network security policies in place with thousands, or even millions of policy rules deployed on their firewalls and routers. Removing any of these rules is often a very worrisome task, because the IT teams don’t have an answer to the big question “why does this rule exist?”

The same question arises in many other scenarios, such as planning a maintenance window or handling an outage (“which applications are impacted when this device is powered off?”, “who should be notified”?), dealing with an insecure rule flagged by an audit, or limiting the blast radius of a malware attack (“What will be impacted if we remove this rule”?).

Intent-based networking (IBN) promises to solve these problems. Once security policies are properly annotated with the intent behind them, these operational tasks become much clearer and can be handled efficiently and with minimal damage. Instead of “move fast and break things” (which is unattractive in a security context, in which “breaking” might mean “become vulnerable”) – wouldn’t it be better to “move fast and NOT break things”?

Intentions versus reality
As such, it’s no surprise that IBN is appealing to larger enterprises: it has the potential to ensure that networks can quickly adapt to the changing needs of the business, boosting agility without creating additional risk. However, while there are several IBN options available today, the technology is not yet fully mature. Some solutions offer IBN capabilities only in single-vendor network environments, while others have limited automation features. 

This means many current solutions are of limited use in the majority of enterprises which have hybrid network environments. To satisfy security and compliance demands, an enterprise’s network management and automation processes must cover its entire heterogeneous fabric, including all security devices and policies (whether in the data center, at its perimeter, across on-premise networks or in the cloud) to enable true agility without compromising protection.

How can enterprises with these complex, hybrid environments align their network and security management processes closely to the needs of the business? Can they automate the management of business-driven application and network changes with straightforward, high level ‘make it so’ commands?

Also, where would the “intent” information come from? In an existing “brown-field” environment, how can we find out, in retrospect, what was the intent behind the existing policies?

The answer is that it is possible to do all this with network security policy management (NSPM) solutions. These can already deliver on IBN’s promise of enabling automated, error-free handling of business-driven changes, and faster application delivery across heterogenous environments – without compromising the organizations’ security or compliance postures. 

Intent-based network security
The right solution starts with automatically discovering and mapping all the business applications in an enterprise, by monitoring and analyzing the network connectivity flows that support them. Through clustering analysis of netflow traffic summaries, modern NSPM solutions can automatically identify correlated business applications, and label the security policies supporting them – thereby automatically identifying the intent.

NSPM solutions can also identify the security devices and policies that support those connectivity flows across heterogeneous on-premise, SDN and cloud environments. This gives a ‘single source of truth’ for the entire network, storing and correlating all the application’s attributes in a single pane of glass, including configurations, IP addresses and policies.

With this holistic application and network map, the solution enables business application owners to request changes to network connectivity for their business applications without having to understand anything about the underlying network and security devices that the connectivity flows pass through.

The application owner simply makes a network connectivity request in their own high-level language, and the solution automatically understands and defines the technical changes required directly on the relevant network security devices. 

As part of this process the solution assesses the change requests for risk and compliance with the organization’s own policies, as well as industry regulations. If the changes carry no significant security risk, the solution automatically implements them directly on the relevant devices, and then verifies the process has been completed – all with zero touch. 

This means normal change requests are processed automatically — from request to implementation — in minutes, with little or no involvement of the networking team. Manual intervention is only required if a problem arises during the process, or if a request is flagged by the solution as high risk, while enabling IT, security and application teams to continuously monitor the state of the network and the business applications it supports. 

Network security management solutions realize the potential of IBN, as they: 

  1. Offer an application discovery capability that automatically assigns the intent to existing policies
  2. Translate and validate high-level business application requests into the relevant network configuration changes.
  3. Automate the implementation of those changes across existing heterogenous network infrastructure, with the assurance that changes are processed compliantly.
  4. Maintain awareness of the state of the enterprise network to ensure uptime, security and compliance. 
  5. Automatically alert IT staff to changes in network and application behaviors, such as an outage or break in connectivity, and recommend corrective action to maintain security and compliance.

These intent-based network security capabilities allow business application owners to express their high-level business needs, and automatically receive a continuously maintained, secure and continuously compliant end-to-end connectivity path for their applications. They also enable IT teams to provision, configure and manage networks far easier, faster and more securely. This achieves the delicate balance of meeting business demands for speed and agility, while ensuring that risks are minimized.

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