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Network Security in the Age of *Any* Computing: Quick Wins

By Mike Rothman

We have worked quickly through the main concepts of using network security tactics to provide access to the myriad of endpoint and mobile devices, so now let’s shift to a process to ensure success for your project. This is all about success, so we find the best path is to focus your project on establishing an initial quick win, and then gradually build momentum for the technology with expanded deployment.

Step 1: Define Success

We know this seems obvious, but it’s amazing how many organizations just start projects without focusing on the problem to solve and how to gauge success. So we start every process by making sure everyone is on the same page regarding what needs to be protected, and from what specific threats. You can do a formal threat model or an informal list of use cases. But you need to know, and everyone else must agree, what success means for this project.

Step 2: Establish Deployment Plan

What’s next? Protect the most critical information, of course. In this step get everyone on the same page regarding where enforcement points will be installed and how you’ll phase in the deployment. Understand up front that you will be wrong – what makes the most sense may change as you go through the project. This isn’t about carving anything in stone – it’s thinking ahead of time about the best way to solve your problem – before some vendor puts you on a runaway train.

Note that all this work happens before you start engaging with vendors. We advocate a strong plan before starting product evaluation. Again, things may change, but if you don’t know what you are trying to get done ahead of time, the odds are you will never get there.

Step 3: Technology Evaluation

Now you get to suffer though any number of dog and pony shows to establish your short list of vendors. We suggest keeping the meetings focused and making sure you do some homework before sitting with a vendor. Then you’ll at least know when they are blatantly pulling your leg.

Step 4: PoC

When dealing with complicated technology, we always recommend a proof of concept (PoC) before buying anything. Given the number of integration points for Network Access Control, you’d be crazy not to ensure each vendor could work with your existing stuff.

We also believe the PoC needs to be customer driven; which means you define the use cases, integration points, and management tasks to be tested – not the vendor. Surprisingly enough, vendors have a unfortunate tendency to direct you toward the strengths of their products. You need to stay laser focused on solving your problem. Be particularly wary of user experience and day-to-day operations, because once you buy something you’ll be living with it every day for quite a while.

Also ensure you have the operational groups on board during the PoC – particularly the network and endpoint folks. Implementing NAC (or something like it) impacts both these areas – often quite significantly. And the last thing you need is another group sabotaging your efforts because you didn’t line up support early in the process.

Step 5: Initial Deployment/Quick Win

At this point, after you have selected and bought technology (yes, we skipped a bunch of steps, including actually buying the gear), you need to roll it out. For NAC, we recommend most organizations focus on visibility initially. This provides dashboards and reports about what devices are connecting, where they are going, and what they are doing. Gradually enforcement policies for some classes of users/devices can be introduced – once you figure out where the biggest exposures are, based on real usage rather than the theoretical threat model. We favor visibility first because this is about getting a quick win. Breaking users’ ability to get onto the network and do work qualifies as a big loss.

To take it a level deeper, given the sensitivity around mobile devices, a logical place to start is monitoring the mobile devices on your network. In our experience this is pretty enlightening, and will clearly drive the first set of access control policies. Alternatively you could scrutinize guest access or folks coming in on the VPN from unprotected networks.

We aren’t religious about where you start, but make sure you focus on a place where you know bad stuff is happening. This way you get proof of the bad stuff and then take quick action to block it, which becomes a quick win. Then you can focus on the next area of bad stuff and build momentum for the technology and project.

Wrapping up

Given that most of these project have some kind of compliance driver, you also need to focus on documentation during the project. Document how you achieve some aspect of whatever compliance mandate you worry doubt. Document how you compare to the success criteria you established early on in the project. Make sure to document the support you lined up from other operational groups throughout the project. That will help when they inevitably push back on deploying the technology for some reason or other.

We have spent considerable time thinking about the impact of any computing (providing access from anywhere, at any time, on any device) on how we need to protect our networks. These emerging requirements – especially in light of the avalanche of consumer-oriented mobile devices – are driving us to providing Network Access Control capabilities on our networks. Whether implementing a specific NAC device or using your existing switching and security infrastructure, you need the ability to guard against unauthorized access to your most critical information.

This involves a number of choices about integrating with the existing network and security infrastructure, as well as endpoint/mobile device management, depending on the level of remediation required on out-of-policy devices. There are many potential issues regarding this integration and remediation which must be identified and addressed during the procurement process, so focus on a modest initial roll-out which both provides answers for followup and builds momentum though quick wins.

It sounds easy, and on paper it is. You’ll find real life a bit more complicated, but as long as you go into the project focused on what business problem you are solving you will achieve success. Really.

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