For weeks now Ive been thinking on and off about “deperimeterization,” a term that has been used in a variety of ways for years. Some analyst talk got it in the news recently.
At least the goal of deperimeterization is to enhance security. That I can respect. The abstract point seems to be to identify the resources worth protecting and to protect them. “Resources” is defined very, very broadly. The overreacting approach to this goal is to say that the network firewall doesnt fit into it. Why not just put systems on the Internet directly and protect the resources on them that are worthy of protection with appropriate measures?
I hope Im not misreading the approach, but thats what I got out of our news article: “BP has taken some 18,000 of its 85,000 laptops off its LAN and allowed them to connect directly to the Internet, [Forrester Research analysts Robert Whiteley and Natalie Lambert] said.” This is incredible, if true.
What does it mean? Perhaps it just means that they can connect to the VPN through a regular ISP connection? That wouldnt be news. On the other hand, what else can it mean? Whitely and Lambert seem to view deperimeterization as a means to improve performance and lower cost. If you need to protect the data on a notebook computer they say you should do it with encryption and “data access controls.” This is the philosophy in the 2001 article in which the term was coined.
But of course you cant just put a system on Comcast and have it access corporate resources. VPNs arent just about security, they connect a remote client into the corporate network. So unless everyone in the corporation has subnet mask of 0.0.0.0 there needs to be some network management going on.
Or maybe Im wrong. Maybe thats what they actually want to do. This certainly sounds like the idea behind the Jericho Forum, the minds behind deperimeterization. This New York Times blog echoes the thoughts.
Not everyone has this cavalier attitude towards deperimeterization. This article from the British Computer Society seems a lot more conservative in approach. It refers to protecting resources “as if [they were] directly exposed to the Internet.” It speaks of using “network segmentation, strict access controls, secure protocols and systems, authentication and encryption at multiple levels.”
That sounds like a shift in emphasis, moving resources more towards internal protection, but not ditching the perimeter. I might have some gripes with this—it sounds like the Full Employment Act for Security Consultants, for example—but it sounds plausible as a useful strategy.
How does virtualization fit
When considering the protection of specific resources, Whitely and Lambert go beyond encryption and data access controls. They talk extensively about “virtualization” as a security mechanism. But their use of the term virtualization sounds like theyre really just talking about terminal access. Clearly theyre just abusing a hot buzzword. Its true that virtualization can be involved in such setups, but its hardly necessary for it and arguably adds little value. I wrote a book on Windows Terminal Server back in 2000 and dumb Windows clients with no local state were perfectly possible back then.
Whitely and Lambert also talk in this context about how updating in a virtualized environment can be done “natively” and is therefore better. But they must really mean “locally,” and this too adds no value, since a non-virtualized Terminal Server has the same advantage.
What is the security value in this? Im not completely clear on it, since youre only really protecting the terminal, which is a low-cost item. The user still has a profile with settings and data. You could use virtual machines to prevent the user from making permanent changes to their profile, but Windows provides for mandatory (static, unchangeable) profiles already, and has for ages. Someone explain the value of this to me, because I dont get it.
And besides, whats it got to do with deperimeterization? The answer is that its a smokescreen to cover the fact that there are no real answers for protecting corporate resources on a client system exposed directly to the Internet.
The reasonable approach is to treat local and perimeter security as a “belt and suspenders” sort of thing, not a zero sum game. Those who tell you that perimeter protections are a failure because there have been breaches are probably just trying to sell you protection at some other layer.
Now I have to set a reminder for myself in Outlook for about two years from now to write a column on the emerging trend towards “reperimeterization.”
Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983.
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