What Is Microsegmentation in Networking? Beginner’s Guide

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Microsegmentation is a network security strategy that breaks a network into smaller network “segments” to boost security and control over data traffic. Unlike traditional network security, which primarily defends the network’s outer boundaries, microsegmentation focuses on securing individual workloads and devices within the network.

While implementing microsegmentation may be complex, the rewards for heightened security and easier management are substantial. This guide will discuss the fundamental concepts, benefits, and best practices associated with microsegmentation in networking.

How microsegmentation works

Microsegmentation works by partitioning a network into smaller, self-contained segments known as microsegments. These segments act as individual security perimeters, which allow organizations to control and monitor network traffic between various components of their infrastructure. Microsegmentation can be broadly categorized into three main approaches:

  • Agent-based microsegmentation: Involves installing software agents on network workloads to enforce segmentation policies.
  • Network-based microsegmentation: Relies on network infrastructure components like switches, routers, and software-defined networking (SDN) to enforce segmentation policies.
  • Native cloud microsegmentation: Integrates with cloud service providers like Google Cloud or AWS and utilizes their security features to enforce segmentation policies in cloud environments.

How is microsegmentation different from network segmentation?

Network segmentation, as a foundational concept, entails partitioning a network into subnetworks. This division is often based on criteria such as departmental distinctions, team boundaries, or even physical locations. It is typically achieved through the use of firewalls, routers, and Virtual Local Area Networks (VLANs).

Once an attacker is in, though, they can relatively easily move across the attack surface. If there is sensitive data present in a network segment, the data have not necessarily been separated from other data and likely do not have their own security protocols.

With microsegmentation, the data in the network is completely mapped out, categorized, and separated by level of importance and access needed. More specific security perimeters are applied to the most sensitive microsegments of data once they are identified, along with other safeguards like multi-factor authentication (MFA) requirements.

How is microsegmentation used in networking?

Microsegmentation is used in networking to enhance protection, control, and monitoring by dividing the network into smaller segments and applying specific access policies to each segment. It is also crucial in modern cloud and data center environments to provide granular control over network traffic, isolate security zones, and safeguard sensitive data from cyberthreats.

Benefits of microsegmentation

A recent report from Statista showed that over 80% of respondents from pioneering companies considered microsegmentation to have a significant impact on their zero-trust security strategy. The primary benefit highlighted was the improved operational efficiency and increased availability of security teams.

Here are some of the other benefits associated with microsegmentation:

Reduced vulnerability exposure

Microsegmentation decreases vulnerability exposure by isolating network segments. This makes it more challenging for attackers to move laterally within the network.

Reinforces regulatory adherence

Microsegmentation helps organizations meet regulatory compliance requirements. It helps ensure that sensitive data and systems are adequately protected and audited. This allows organizations to avoid fines and legal issues.

Streamlined policy administration

Microsegmentation simplifies policy administration by allowing organizations to define and enforce specific security rules for each network segment, rather than tracking and maintaining permissions for each individual user.

Common microsegmentation challenges

Microsegmentation presents some common implementation challenges, including infrastructure adaptation, process optimization, and integration with existing tools:

Infrastructure adaptation

Implementing microsegmentation often necessitates changes to an organization’s existing network infrastructure, requiring updates and potential investments in new technology to accommodate the segmented network architecture.

Process optimization

Organizations may face the challenge of re-evaluating and optimizing their network and security processes to align with the new microsegmentation strategy, which can be complex and resource-intensive, at least to begin.

Integration with existing tools

Integrating microsegmentation into existing network security tools and systems can be challenging, as compatibility issues and configuration adjustments may be required to ensure seamless operation and management.

What are the best practices for microsegmentation?

To ensure the effective deployment of microsegmentation, it’s essential to adhere to the following best practices:

Define boundaries carefully

Take the time to understand the data flows and dependencies within your network and then define the boundaries that will separate different parts of your network. When setting these boundaries, consider factors like business units, departments, and security zones. Precision in boundary definitions is essential for creating effective security policies.

Understand your applications

Understand how different applications interact with each other. Group related applications together and create segments that align with their specific needs and security requirements. This approach simplifies policy management and ensures that security measures are tailored to the behavior of the applications.

Identify levels of access

Clearly define different levels of access based on roles and responsibilities within your organization. Implement the least privilege principle, where users and systems only have access to the resources necessary for their specific tasks.

Gradually implement segmentation

Start with a phased implementation and focus on sensitive areas first. This gradual approach allows you to fine-tune policies, identify and address issues, and learn from initial segments before expanding to other areas of the network.

Types of microsegmentation

Microsegmentation comprises various types, each designed to fulfill specific objectives. These include segmenting by application, user, tier, and environment.

Application segmentation

Application segmentation focuses on safeguarding sensitive data-handling applications by creating security perimeters and controlling access. It efficiently manages east-west traffic between network applications.

User segmentation

User segmentation restricts user access based on roles and group memberships. This ensures limited visibility and customized network resource access.

Tier-level segmentation

Tier-level segmentation isolates and protects different organizational tiers. This allows controlled communication between them, such as between the processing and data tiers, while limiting web server access.

Environmental segmentation

Environmental segmentation is vital for networks with diverse environments, like development, testing, production, and staging areas. It isolates these environments and limits inter-environment communication, preventing attackers from exploiting vulnerabilities across the network.

Firewalls vs. microsegmentation

Firewalls and microsegmentation both serve the purpose of enhancing network security. However, their approach to network security is different.

A firewall monitors and controls network traffic based on preset rules. It creates a barrier between trusted internal networks and untrusted external networks to prevent unauthorized access and protect against cyberthreats. Top firewall software options include Norton, Fortinet, and pfSense.

Microsegmentation focuses on securing traffic within the internal network. It enforces security policies based on application awareness, user identity, and specific workload attributes.

In other words, both firewalls and microsegmentation are important elements in an enterprise’s overall network security stack; one does not cancel the other out.

Bottom line: Microsegmentation boosts security and management of enterprise networks

Microsegmentation is an effective strategy that strengthens network security by focusing on precision and control within a network. It is also a vital component of a broader zero-trust architecture initiative. While implementation may pose certain challenges, the rewards of improved security and control make it a worthwhile investment for any medium or large enterprise network.

For more advice and information on segmenting your network, here are our top guides:

Franklin Okeke
Franklin Okeke
Franklin Okeke is a contributing writer to Enterprise Networking Planet, as well as an author and freelance content writer with over 5 years of experience covering cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, and emerging technologies. In addition to pursuing a Master's degree in Cybersecurity & Human Factors from Bournemouth University, Franklin is an entrepreneur with a passion for startups, innovation, and product development. His writing also appears regularly in TechRepublic, ServerWatch, and other leading technology publications.

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