Microsegmentation in 2024: What is it? Benefits & Challenges
Figure: Fortinet’s survey of the percentage of workloads businesses run in the cloud in 2023.1
With a rising number of applications migrating to the cloud and workloads accumulating on these networks, the traditional castle-and-moat technique for establishing a security perimeter has become outdated against modern threats that can breach software-defined perimeters.
Microsegmentation tools can help security experts enable finer-grained zoning throughout private, public, and hybrid IT environments to detect, govern, and prevent cyber threats.
Security executives need to understand the function, benefits, key features, and use cases of microsegmentation to increase the security of their networks and data.
What is microsegmentation?
Microsegmentation is a network security solution that allows data centers or cloud environments to be separated into discrete security segments based on certain workloads, which allows organizations to establish security rules (automated risk assessments or vulnerability scanning automation) and limit access to each subsection. Microsegmentation systems can be deployed through each web server or directly onto each hypervisor* in a data center.
With microsegmentation, each of the following objects can be isolated as a distinct “segment” across the network:
- Workloads and applications: Segmenting particular instances of software programs (a database) or all instances (all SQL databases).
- Virtual machines: Segmenting one or more virtual machines (VM in an application).
- Operating systems: The classification of particular operating systems (all Windows OSs used by programmers).
* A software type that allows several VMs to operate on one physical machine.Illumio2
Figure: Microsegmentation framework
Types of microsegmentation
Based on segmentation type
1. Container segmentation: Separates containers from one another to increase security and limit the attack surface. This allows several programs or services to operate on a single host system in distinct containers.
2. Applications segmentation: Secures particular applications by establishing safety measures that restrict access to particular application resources such as databases or servers.
3. Tier segmentation: Protects separate tiers or levels of an application stack, (web tier, application tier, or database tier) against attackers moving laterally inside the application stack.
4. Environment segmentation: Ensures network virtualization technology (e.g. development, data application security testing, or production) is secure by implementing access rules for private data and resources.
5. User segmentation: Classifies user access based on different criteria to ensure that only authorized users have access to company resources.
Here are key factors to consider for cloud security user segmentation:
- Role-based access control (RBAC): RBAC entails generating and defining credentials for roles before allocating people to the appropriate roles based on job duties. This method guarantees employees only have access to the resources they require to fulfill their job tasks.
- Multi-factor authentication (MFA): MFA enables users to give multiple types of authentication to use a resource. This might be a username and password.
- Continuous monitoring: Tracking user behavior for recognizing and responding to security problems in real-time. This entails examining log data and user activity to discover threats.
- Separation of duties: Distributing responsibilities among several users to prevent any single user from obtaining too much influence over a system or process. This decreases the possibility of fraud while also ensuring that critical procedures are carried out by several people.
- Regular access audits: Regular access reviews entail examining user authorizations to verify they are still necessary.
Based on environment type
1. Hypervisor-based: Hypervisor-based microsegmentation routes all network communication through the hypervisor without moving the firewalls. Thus, firewalls may be maintained in location, and security policies can be moved across hypervisors.
2. Host-based: With the host-based model, agents are positioned at each endpoint to assist in detecting possible vulnerabilities. This model employs a central manager who gives full visibility across all resources, procedures, services, and network connections.
3. Network-based: Network-based microsegmentation defines who can enter certain network microsegments.
Network segmentation vs microsegmentation
Network segmentation is a more traditional and physical approach than microsegmentation, which aims to divide a network into multiple sections referred to as subnetworks or subnets using both hardware and software-driven approaches. Network segmentation can be achieved by establishing security rules, access control lists, firewalls, and virtual LANs (VLANs).
- Network segmentation is hardware-based and designed for north-south traffic (client-server data flows between data centers).
Microsegmentation, a successor of network segmentation, takes a more up-to-date and granular approach to formulate security limitations. In contrast to network segmentation, which relies on a single constraint to manage access, microsegmentation limits access to all machines, endpoints, and applications, independent of VLAN.
- Microsegmentation is software-based and designed for east-west traffic (server-to-server data flows between applications).
Scope and differences of network segmentation vs. microsegmentation
During network segmentation, devices that must connect with these apps are assigned to a distinct VLAN – or subnetwork.
While network segmentation can limit communication across VLANs, it cannot restrict server-to-server connectivity inside a VLAN. This is because all the application servers reside on a single subnetwork. With miccrosegmentation users can block both north-south and east-west traffic, which is more valuable to companies in terms of enhanced security.
Figure: Comparison between network segmentation and microsegmentation – using VLANs –
Why use microsegmentation?
With the development of data storage tools, the primary traffic on data center networks has shifted from north-south to east-west. Thus, internal traffic security has become even more critical.
Major security problems in virtualized data infrastructures:
- Vulnerabilities in hypervisors: Hypervisors are primarily intended to operate several guest VMs and applications in parallel on one host. If attackers get control of the hypervisor, they will have access to all VMs and private data.
- Hypervisor failure: Hypervisors entirely manage VM access to hardware, when hypervisor crashes due to software bugs in infrastructure resulting in system failure.
- VM escape: Vulnerabilities in OSs running within VMs can cause attackers to launch risky applications. When these malicious applications are executed, the VM breaches the isolated boundaries and begins communicating with the OS by avoiding the VM layer. This allows attackers to perform attacks on the host environment.
- VM sprawl: This happens when the volume of virtual machines (VMs) on a network grows to the level that admins can no longer properly control them.
- Outside-VM: This originates through the host OS and VMs. If a malicious VM knows the precise address of another VM’s memory, it can execute read or write procedures to that place and change other actions.
Microsegmentation has smaller granularities than subnets. It can segment a DC’s internal network across smaller groups, and leverage a more detailed service policy control to limit the lateral transfers of network threats. Microsegmentation can isolate workloads, apps, and procedures in the cloud, data center, and containers using workload-identity and context-based firewalling or encrypted data connections.
Microsegmentation blocks attackers or threats from spreading or migrating laterally in data centers or the cloud. With microsegmentation a threat will be limited in a location, preventing attackers from moving to other sections of a system (see below).
Figure: Security protection without and with microsegmentation
Benefits of microsegmentation
To get an understanding of the value of microsegmentation for virtualization security, we reviewed major security problems (above). This section examines how companies may utilize the benefits of microsegmentation.
1. Minimized the attack surface
As more businesses transfer workloads from on-premises data centers to cloud and hybrid cloud environments, the entire attack surface has grown. Microsegmentation decreases the possible attack surface by separating the network into smaller segments that cannot be passed without verification, limiting malicious users from flowing laterally inside the application architecture.
2. Stronger regulatory compliance
Several regulatory frameworks require companies to employ rigorous access controls and security measures (PCI-DSS, HIPAA, and regional mandates such as GDPR) to secure sensitive data. Microsegmentation can assist firms in demonstrating regulatory data compliance by ensuring that only approved users and apps have access to sensitive resources.
3. Enhanced breach control
When an attacker conducts a breach, microsegmentation can assist in limiting the attacker’s lateral movement ability around the network, lowering the effect of the attack. Microsegmentation can limit the spread of malware or other malicious activities by separating network sections, decreasing the potential impact of breach.
4. Gap-free protection
Security policies can cover environments (containers, on-premises data center, and operating systems) on both private and public clouds without a security gap because the policy is tailored to the workload rather than the network segment.
Challenges of microsegmentation
If microsegmentation is not correctly built and performed, it might provide network performance and security challenges:
Complexity: When microsegmentation is done within operational environments, this is a time-consuming procedure that tends to disrupt corporate operations. The network design may only sometimes fit the segmentation requirements. It is complex and time-consuming to re-architect networks or reconfigure VLANs and subnets based on segmentation needs (see figure).
Performance decline: Segmenting the network too precisely or implementing too numerous safety measures might damage network traffic patterns and restrict the network’s efficiency. Administering security regulations to each segment adds extra overhead to the network, which can contribute to delays.
Security deficiencies: Unreliable policy enforcement and configuration errors can result in security breaches, banned valid traffic, and cyber threats.
State of microsegmentation: 6 key takeaways from Gartner & Forrester reports
1. Traditional perimeter-based network segmentation will become insufficient: Using yesterday’s technology to protect tomorrow’s complex settings against breaches does not make sense. According to Gartner, cybersecurity executives are turning to ZTS and searching for solutions to implement security controls at the workload level to uphold Zero Trust standards. By 2026, 60% of organizations aiming toward zero trust networks will employ more than one microsegmentation deployment type, up from less than 5% in 2023.6
2. Zero Trust and microsegmentatin implementation will continue to evolve: Gartner sees demand spanning all industries and countries. Microsegmentation solutions will be evaluated by midsize companies, which is a new concept.7
3. Companies will rely on microsegmentation methods to implement Zero Trust security to mitigate the broken perimeter risks: The earlier years have seen a perfect storm of digital change as companies rushed immediately, to transfer remote work and migrate to the cloud. This has resulted in a more complicated environment, as well as a rise in broken perimeters.
Gartner predicts that cybersecurity executives will turn to Zero Trust security techniques to address these threats. Companies will establish fine-grained zoning and microsegmentation solutions as a practical way of executing Zero Trust principles.
Thus, security teams can decrease potential risks associated with today’s broken perimeters by developing granular security policies at the workload level, rather than relying on inaccurate IP addresses.8
4. Microsegmentation tools will be in high demand: ~80% of businesses aiming to expand Zero Trust and microsegmentatin security procedures.9
5. Most businesses are still in the early phases of Zero Trust and microsegmentation implementation: Only ~35% of companies have begun to adopt security solutions, and only 6% have completely deployed their microsegmentation initiatives.10
6. Micro-segmentation is expected to benefit security professionals in a range of areas critical to organizational performance: Cloud and data center migrations and support for new operational frameworks are expected to enhance by ~70%, and ~65%, respectively.*11
- Zero Trust Network Access (ZTNA) in 2023: Definition & Benefits
- Software Defined Perimeter in 2023: Importance & Use Cases
- 10 Cybersecurity Best Practices for Corporations
- Firewall as a Service: Definition & Top 8 Benefits
- Data Compliance: Best Practices & Challenges
Cem has been the principal analyst at AIMultiple since 2017. AIMultiple informs hundreds of thousands of businesses (as per similarWeb) including 60% of Fortune 500 every month.
Cem's work has been cited by leading global publications including Business Insider, Forbes, Washington Post, global firms like Deloitte, HPE, NGOs like World Economic Forum and supranational organizations like European Commission. You can see more reputable companies and media that referenced AIMultiple.
Throughout his career, Cem served as a tech consultant, tech buyer and tech entrepreneur. He advised businesses on their enterprise software, automation, cloud, AI / ML and other technology related decisions at McKinsey & Company and Altman Solon for more than a decade. He also published a McKinsey report on digitalization.
He led technology strategy and procurement of a telco while reporting to the CEO. He has also led commercial growth of deep tech company Hypatos that reached a 7 digit annual recurring revenue and a 9 digit valuation from 0 within 2 years. Cem's work in Hypatos was covered by leading technology publications like TechCrunch and Business Insider.
Cem regularly speaks at international technology conferences. He graduated from Bogazici University as a computer engineer and holds an MBA from Columbia Business School.
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