Network Infrastructure as a Software System

Increasing complexity is putting networks at risk. It’s time to shift our security approach and take some lessons from software development.

In 2015, the US government disclosed breaches at the US Office of Personnel Management (OPM) that exposed sensitive records of more than 22 million people in what was potentially the biggest “doxing” in history.

What vulnerability did the adversary exploit? One step involved endpoint malware — no surprise given that modern enterprises are exposed via thousands of weaknesses in software running on their endpoints, from users’ laptops to Internet of Things (IoT) devices to database servers.

But sophisticated attacks typically involve multiple steps. One of the keys to the breadth of the OPM incident was that after an initial compromise, the adversary apparently was able to gain unfettered access to a full data center.

In other words, even though the word “vulnerability” typically brings to mind endpoint software weaknesses, endpoints are not the only vulnerable system. What if the vulnerability is in the network itself, such as a weakness in network segmentation or microsegmentation that should quarantine parts of the network but instead exposes assets to attack?

That’s becoming more likely because of increasing complexity. In a simpler time, the network’s job was done if a packet went in one end of the metaphorical tube and came out the other end unharmed. Today, network infrastructure is dramatically more sophisticated. A large enterprise might have tens of thousands of routers, switches, firewalls, load balancers, application delivery controllers (ADCs), and other gear. Access control rules and policies might number in the thousands or even hundreds of thousands in very large enterprises. These devices and their configurations are often orchestrated in part manually and in part through automated configuration management software or homegrown scripts. Now there are new layers of virtualization on top of the physical…

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