I am fascinated by the fact that in over twenty years, the networking industry still deploys firewalls in most of our networks exactly the way it did back in the day. And for many networks, that's it. The reality is that the attack vectors today are different from what they were twenty years ago, and we now need something more than just edge security.

 

The Ferro Doctrine

Listeners to the Packet Pushers podcast may have heard the inimitable Greg Ferro expound on the concept that firewalls are worthless at this point because the cost of purchasing, supporting, and maintaining them exceeds the cost to the business of any data breach that may occur as a result. To some extent, Greg has a point. After the breach has been cleared up and the costs of investigation, fines, and compensatory actions have been taken into account, the numbers in many cases do seem to be quite close. With that in mind, if you're willing to bet on not being breached for a period of time, it might actually be a money-saving strategy to just wait and hope. There's a little more to this than meets the eye, however.

 

Certificate of Participation

It's all very well to argue that a firewall would not have prevented a breach (or delayed it any longer than it already took for a company to be breached), but I'd hate to be the person trying to make that argument to my shareholders, or (in the U.S.) the Securities Exchange Commission or the Department of Health and Human Services, to pick a couple of random examples. At least if you have a firewall, you get to claim "Well, at least we tried." As a parallel, imagine that two friends have their bicycles stolen from the local railway station where they had left them. One friend used a chain and padlock to secure their bicycle, but the other just left their bicycle there because the thieves can cut through the chain easily anyway. Which friend would you feel more sympathy for? The chain and padlock at least raised the barrier of entry to only include thieves with bolt cutters.

 

The Nature Of Attacks

Greg's assertion that firewalls are not needed does have a subtle truth to it -- if it's coupled with the idea that some kind of port-based filtering at the edge is still necessary. But perhaps it doesn't need to be stateful and, typically, expensive. What if edge security was implemented on the existing routers using (by definition, stateless) access control lists instead? The obvious initial reaction might be to think, "Ah, but we must have session state!" Why? When's the last TCP sequence prediction attack you heard of? Maybe it's a long time ago, because we have stateful firewalls, but maybe it's also because the attack surface has changed.

 

Once upon a time, firewalls protected devices from attacks on open ports, but I would posit that the majority of attacks today are focused on applications accessed via a legitimate port (e.g. tcp/80 or tcp/443), and thus a firewall does little more than increment a few byte and sequence counters as an application-layer attack is taking place. A quick glance at the OWASP 2017 Top 10 List release candidate shows the wide range of ways in which applications are being assaulted. (I should note that this release candidate, RC1, was rejected, but it's a good example of what's at stake even if some specifics change when it's finally approved.)

 

If an attack takes place using a port which the firewall will permit, how is the firewall protecting the business assets? Some web application security might help here too, of course.

 

Edge Firewalls Only Protect The Edge

Another change which has become especially prevalent in the last five years is the idea of using distributed security (usually firewalls!) to move the enforcement point down toward the servers. Once upon a time, it was sometimes necessary to do this simply because centralized firewalls simply did not scale well enough to cope with the traffic they were expected to handle. The obvious solution is to have more firewalls and place them closer to the assets they are being asked to protect.

 

Host-based firewalls are perhaps the ultimate in distributed firewalls, and whether implemented within the host or at the host edge (e.g. within a vSwitch or equivalent within a hypervisor), flows within a data center environment can now be controlled, preventing the spread of attacks between hosts. VMWare's NSX is probably the most commonly seen implementation of a microsegmentation solution, but whether using NSX or another solution, the key to managing so many firewalls is to have a front end where policy is defined, then let the system figure out where to deploy which rules. It's all very well spinning up a Juniper cSRX (an SRX firewall implemented as a container) for example, on every virtualization host, but somebody has to configure the firewalls, and that's a task, if performed manually, that would rapidly spiral out of control.

 

Containers bring another level of security angst too since they can communicate with each other within a host. This has led to the creation of nanosegmentation security, which controls traffic within a host, at the container level.

 

Distributed firewalls are incredibly scalable because every new virtualization host can have a new firewall, which means that security capacity expands at the same rate as the compute capacity. Sure, licensing costs likely grow at the same rate as well, but it's the principal that's important.

 

Extending the distributed firewall idea to end-user devices isn't a bad idea either. Imagine how the spread of a worm like wannacry could have been limited if the user host firewalls could have been configured to block SMB while the worm was rampant within a network.

 

Trusted Platforms

In God we trust; all others must pay cash. For all the efforts we make to secure our networks and applications, we are usually also making the assumption that the hardware on which our network and computer runs is secure in the first place. After the many releases of NSA data, I think many have come to question whether this is actually the case. To that end, trusted platforms have become available, where components and software are monitored all the way from the original manufacturer through to assembly, and the hardware/firmware is designed to identify and warn about any kind of tampering that may have been attempted. There's a catch here, which is that the customer always has to decide to trust someone, but I get the feeling that many people would believe a third-party company's claims of non-interference over a government's. If this is important to you, there are trusted compute platforms available, and now even some trusted network platforms with a similar chain of custody-type procedures in place to help ensure legitimacy.

 

There's Always Another Tool

The good news is that security continues to be such a hot topic that there is no shortage of options when it comes to adding tools to your network (and there are many I have chosen not to mention here for the sake of brevity). There's no perfect security architecture, and whatever tools are currently running, there's usually another that could be added to fill a hole in the security stance. Many tools, at least the inline ones, add latency to the packet flows; it's unavoidable. In an environment where transaction speed is critical (e.g. high-speed trading), what's the trade off between security and latency?

 

Does this mean that we should give up on in-depth security and go back to ACLs? I don't think so. However, a security posture isn't something that can be created once then never updated. It has to be a dynamic strategy that is updated based on new technologies, new threats, and budgetary concerns. Maybe at some point, ACLs will become the right answer in a given situation. It's also not usually possible to protect against every known threat, so every decision is going to be a balance between cost, staffing, risk, and exposure. Security will always be a best effort given the known constraints.

 

We've come so far since the early firewall days, and it looks like things will continue changing, refreshing, and improving going forward as well. Today's security is not your mama's security architecture, indeed.