Governance & Risk Management , Network Firewalls, Network Access Control , Security Operations

As NSA Pushes for Microsegmentation, Will Others Follow?

Zero Trust Experts Share Key Steps for Implementing Microsegmentation
As NSA Pushes for Microsegmentation, Will Others Follow?

The National Security Agency last month issued guidance on advancing zero trust programs through the network and environment pillar, with a key focus on microsegmentation. While the concept of microsegmentation is nothing new, what drove the NSA to encourage enterprises to adopt microsegmentation?

See Also: Safeguarding against GenAI Cyberthreats with Zero Trust

The NSA is the latest of numerous government agencies to endorse zero trust principles such as microsegmentation. Advancements in host-level enforcement are making microsegmentation simpler. It can now be integrated more seamlessly into digital architectures, according to a recent Forrester report, The Microsegmentation Solutions Landscape, Q2 2024. Vendors are using agents from endpoint protection and detection response as enforcement points. And software-defined networking, which is a common feature in many modern network devices, supports the flexible integration and control of new equipment, and thus significantly aids microsegmentation efforts.

Enterprises have long wrestled with the complexities of microsegmentation and are often deterred by intricate network infrastructures, the demand for detailed policies, potential impacts on business performance, and the challenge of integrating new systems into existing setups. But despite these hurdles, the vast potential for microsegmentation remains largely untapped across the business landscape.

The Challenges of Microsegmentation

Microsegmentation supports zero trust by restricting access and communication among assets, data, services, machines and accounts within the business, making it a key component of a mature zero trust strategy. Unlike other cybersecurity technologies, microsegmentation does not enhance user productivity, accelerate network traffic, or improve user experience - making it tough to justify from an ROI standpoint.

Microsegmentation projects fail at most enterprises for multiple reasons. Organizations typically apply microsegmentation around workloads and applications that handle high-value data. Unfortunately, most organizations have limited knowledge of their high-value assets.

Also, implementing microsegmentation requires security, IT and operations teams to define and enforce granular access control policies. These policies depend on factors such as user identity, device type, whether applications are managed or unmanaged, data sensitivity, baseline traffic patterns, dependencies and intended security policies.

"As a result, about 50% to 60% of organizations hesitate while writing these explicit policies for the fear of missing out. But at the end of the day, you don't know what you don't know," said David Holmes, principal research analyst at Forrester in an interview with Information Security Media Group.

Another challenge is the lack of understanding of business context, said Robert LaMagna-Reiter, vice president, information security and compliance and CISO at Hudl. "During a cybersecurity overhaul I led, which was guided by zero trust principles, we aligned our microsegmentation efforts with specific business workflows to boost resiliency and automation based on trust."

Different organizations might choose varying levels of granularity in microsegmentation - from individual machines to entire business segments. The depth of microsegmentation depends on what’s critical for business resiliency and risk management, LaMagna-Reiter said.

But the more detailed the microsegmentation, the more complex the policies and rules needed to manage network communications. "This often leads to increased manual efforts despite automation claims by some solutions," he said.

Attempts to automate microsegmentation also are challenging and have resulted in many failures.

LaMagna-Reiter, who is a member of the CyberEdBoard emphasized the importance of paying attention to and adjusting policies for parts of those businesses that fall outside the scope of microsegmentation solutions, such as APIs and third-party connections. He pointed out that the ultimate goal is to integrate business risk tolerance into these security efforts smoothly, thus enhancing overall business efficiency without adding complexity. This consideration is crucial to determine whether the efforts and investments in microsegmentation are justified.

Zero trust creator and CyberEdBoard member John Kindervag disagrees. For him, microsegmentation is more than just a technical hurdle. "It is a mindset issue. I think people are fearful. The number one problem in cybersecurity is that people are fearful in the wrong way," he said. "They're not fearful that somebody will take down their network. They consider it an outlier. They are fearful that by putting in these controls, they will stop the good things."

Best Steps for Microsegmentation

Rather than trying to find a solution that works across public cloud, private cloud and on-premises workloads, Forrester in its report titled "Best Practices for Zero Trust Microsegmentation," advises CISOs to choose a priority environment and the solution that fits it best.

For example, businesses should proceed with zero trust projects, including microsegmentation, without waiting for digital transformation initiatives to begin. Forrester's Holmes told Information Security Media Group that CISOs must start implementing appropriate microsegmentation strategies in existing data center and virtualized environments immediately and adopt different strategies when transitioning to the public cloud.

Data classification is another important factor to keep in mind. Some level of data classification must exist prior to microsegmentation, especially for knowing where to initially scope the project. Holmes also advised identifying owners of critical applications and working with them to reconcile the recommended segmentation policy with their understanding of the business logic of the applications.

Forrester’s Best Practices For Zero Trust Microsegmentation report states cybersecurity leaders should prioritize network constructs over user identity while working on microsegmentation. "While zero trust emphasizes user identity, organizations need to fix the Layer 3 and 4 implicit trust problems in machine-to-machine environments now. Don’t be swayed by a vendor promising a mix of authentication and authorization across Layers 3, 4 and 7 in complex, heterogeneous environments; the technology isn't there yet for on-premises networks," it states.

LaMagna-Reiter in an interview with ISMG suggested starting small and establishing a center of excellence or internal committee to maintain the alignment and the support of the project. "You need to communicate the wins to each business unit. So by having that center of excellence, you've brought on board a group you have already achieved consensus with. Make them part of the journey. After all, it is not a security-only initiative," he said.

The Latest Advancements

The NSA released its guidelines at the right time. Vendors in the SSE and SASE space are showing the capacity to break into the microsegmentation market, though none have done so yet, Holmes said. When it happens, it will signal a happy marriage between zero trust access and zero trust segmentation, Forrester’s Microsegmentation Solutions Landscape, Q2 2024 states.

Plus, organizations are finally getting serious about zero trust. Some are proactively implementing microsegmentation as part of a zero trust strategy or initiative. Others are implementing it because they got hit by ransomware and are trying to avoid getting hit again. But all are doing zero trust with microsegmentation, the report states.

"I've been doing this for a long time successfully. I know it works. We're cybersecurity professionals. We worship hard. If you don't want to do hard things, then get into a different business," Kindervag said.

About the Author

Suparna Goswami

Suparna Goswami

Associate Editor, ISMG

Goswami has more than 10 years of experience in the field of journalism. She has covered a variety of beats including global macro economy, fintech, startups and other business trends. Before joining ISMG, she contributed for Forbes Asia, where she wrote about the Indian startup ecosystem. She has also worked with UK-based International Finance Magazine and leading Indian newspapers, such as DNA and Times of India.

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