Network segmentation is the practice of splitting your computer network into subnetworks or network segments (also known as zoning). This is typically done using combinations of firewalls, VLANs, access controls and policies & procedures. Implementing network segmentation requires planning and effort, and it can entail some teething problems along the way as well. So why should it be done?
The number one reason is to protect the security of your network resources and information. When people first started to defend their homes and enterprises from attack, they built perimeter walls and made sure everything important was inside of those walls. They figured doing this would keep their enemies outside where they couldn’t possibly do any damage. This was a great idea, but unfortunately it had problems in the real world.
People found that the enemy only had to make one small hole in their perimeter defenses to be able to get at all of their valuables. They also realized that their perimeter defense didn’t stop evil insiders from wreaking havoc on their valuables. To deal with these problems, people started to add additional layers of protection inside of their outer walls. They walled off enclaves inside the outer defenses and added locks and guards to their individual buildings to thwart attacks.
This same situation exists now in the world of network protection. As network security assessors and advisors, we see that most networks we deal with are still “flat;” they are not really segmented and access controls alone are left to prevent successful attacks from occurring. But in the real world, hacking into a computer network is all about gaining a tiny foothold on the network, then leveraging that access to navigate around the network. The harder it is for these attackers to see the resources they want and navigate to them, the safer those resources are. In addition, the more protections that hackers need to circumvent during their attacks, the more likely they are to be detected. It should also be noted that network segmentation works just as well against the internal threat; it is just as difficult for an employee to gain access to a forbidden network segment as it is for an Internet-based attacker.
Increased security is not the only advantage of network segmentation. Instead of making network congestions worse, well implemented segmentation can actually reduce network congestion. This is because there are fewer hosts, thus less local traffic per segment. In addition, segmentation can help you contain network problems by limiting the effects of local failures that occur on other parts of the network.
The business reasons for implementing network segmentation are becoming more apparent every day. Increasingly, customers are demanding better information security from the businesses they employ. If the customer has a choice between two very similar companies, they will almost assuredly pick the company with better security. Simply being able to say to your customers that your network is fully segmented and controlled can improve your chances of success radically.