Plan for change but don’t leave security behind

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COVID-19 has upended the way we do all things. In this interview, Mike Bursell, Chief Security Architect at Red Hat, shares his view of which IT security changes are ongoing and which changes enterprises should prepare for in the coming months and years.

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How has the pandemic affected enterprise edge computing strategies? Has the massive shift to remote work created problems when it comes to scaling hybrid cloud environments?

The pandemic has caused major shifts in the ways we live and work, from video calls to increased use of streaming services, forcing businesses to embrace new ways to be flexible, scalable, efficient and cost-saving. It has also exposed weaknesses in the network architectures that underpin many companies, as they struggle to cope with remote working and increased traffic. We’re therefore seeing both an accelerated shift to edge computing, which takes place at or near the physical location of either the end-user or the data source, and further interest in hybrid cloud strategies which don’t require as much on-site staff time.

Changing your processes to make the most of this without damaging your security posture requires thought and, frankly, new policies and procedures. Get your legal and risk teams involved – but don’t forget your HR department. HR has a definite role to play in allowing your key employees to continue to do the job you need them to do, but in ways that are consonant with the new world we’re living in.

However, don’t assume that these will be – or should be! – short-term changes. If you can find more efficient or effective ways of managing your infrastructure, without compromising your risk profile while also satisfying new staff expectations, then everyone wins.

What would you say are the most significant challenges for enterprises that want to build secure and future-proof application infrastructures?

One challenge is that although some of the technology is now quite mature, the processes for managing it aren’t, yet. And by that I don’t just mean technical processes, but how you arrange your teams and culture to suit new ways of managing, deploying, and (critically) automating your infrastructure. Add to this new technologies such as confidential computing (using Trusted Execution Environments to protect data in use), and there is still a lot of change.

The best advice is to plan for change – technical, process and culture – but do not, whatever you do, leave security till last. It has to be front and centre of any plans you make. One concrete change that you can make immediately is taking your security people off just “fire-fighting duty”, where they have to react to crises as they come in: businesses can consider how to use them in a more proactive way.

People don’t scale, and there’s a global shortage of security experts. So, you need to use the ones that you have as effectively as you can, and, crucially, give them interesting work to do, if you plan to retain them. It’s almost guaranteed that there are ways to extend their security expertise into processes and automation which will benefit your broader teams. At the same time, you can allow those experts to start preparing for new issues that will arise, and investigating new technologies and methodologies which they can then reapply to business processes as they mature.

How has cloud-native management evolved in the last few years and what are the current security stumbling blocks?

One of the areas of both maturity and immaturity is in terms of workload isolation. We can think of three types: workload from workload isolation (preventing workloads from interfering with each other – type 1); host from workload isolation (preventing workloads from interfering with the host – type 2); workload from host isolation (preventing hosts from interfering with workloads – type 3).

The technologies for types 1 and 2 are really quite mature now, with containers and virtual machines combining a variety of hardware and software techniques such virtualization, cgroups and SELinux. On the other hand, protecting workloads from malicious or compromised hosts is much more difficult, meaning that regulators – and sensible enterprises! – are unwilling to have some workloads execute in the public cloud.

Technologies like secure and measured boot, combined with TPM capabilities by projects such as Keylime (which is fully open source) are beginning to address this, and we can expect major improvement as confidential computing (and open source projects like Enarx which uses TEEs) matures.

In the past few years, we’ve seen a huge interest in Kubernetes deployments. What common mistakes are organizations making along the way? How can they be addressed?

One of the main mistakes we see businesses make is attempting to deploy Kubernetes without the appropriate level of in house expertise. Kubernetes is an ecosystem, rather than a one-off executable, that relies on other services provided by open source projects. It requires IT teams to fully understand the architecture that is made up of applications and network layers.

Once implemented, businesses must also maintain the ecosystem in parallel to any software running on top. When it comes to implementation, businesses are advised to follow open standards – those decided upon by the open source Kubernetes community as a whole, rather than a specific vendor. This will prevent teams from running into unexpected roadblocks, and helps to ensure a smooth learning curve for new team members.

Another mistake organizations can make is ignoring small but important details, like the backwards compatibility of Kubernetes with older versions is very important. It’s easy to overlook the fact that these may not have important security updates that can transfer, so IT teams must be mindful when merging code across versions, and check regularly for available updates.

Open source remains one of the building blocks of enterprise IT. What’s your take on the future of open source code in large business networks?

Open source is here to stay, and that’s a good thing, not least for security. The more security experts there are to look at code, the more likely that bugs will be found and fixed. Of course, security experts are short on the ground, and busy, so it’s important that large enterprises make a commitment to getting involved with open source and committing resources to it.

Another issue that people also get confused by thinking that just because a project is open source, it’s ready to use. There’s a difference between an open source project and an enterprise product which is based on that project. In the latter case, you get all the benefits of testing, patching, upgrading, vulnerability processes, version management and support. In the former case, you need to manage everything yourself – including ensuring that you have sufficient expertise in house to cope with any issues that come up.

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September 10, 2020