You Can’t Hack What You Can’t See
A different approach to networking leaves potential intruders in the dark.
A new way of configuring networks eliminates security vulnerabilities that date back to the Internet’s origins. Instead of building multilayered protocols that act like flashing lights to alert hackers to their presence, network managers apply a single layer that is virtually invisible to cybermarauders. The result is a nearly hack-proof network that could bolster security for users fed up with phishing scams and countless other problems.
The digital world of the future has arrived, and citizens expect anytime-anywhere, secure access to services and information. Today’s work force also expects modern, innovative digital tools to perform efficiently and effectively. But companies are neither ready for the coming tsunami of data, nor are they properly armored to defend against cyber attacks.
The amount of data created in the past two years alone has eclipsed the amount of data consumed since the beginning of recorded history. Incredibly, this amount is expected to double every few years. There are more than 7 billion people on the planet and nearly 7 billion devices connected to the Internet. In another few years, given the adoption of the Internet of Things (IoT), there could be 20 billion or more devices connected to the Internet.
And these are conservative estimates. Everyone, everywhere will be connected in some fashion, and many people will have their identities on several different devices. Recently, IoT devices have been hacked and used in distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks against corporations. Coupled with the advent of bring your own device (BYOD) policies, this creates a recipe for widespread disaster.
Internet protocol (IP) networks are, by their nature, vulnerable to hacking. Most if not all these networks were put together by stacking protocols to solve different elements in the network. This starts with 802.1x at the lowest layer, which is the IEEE standard for connecting to local area networks (LANs) or wide area networks (WANs). Then stacked on top of that is usually something called Spanning Tree Protocol, designed to eliminate loops on redundant paths in a network. These loops are deadly to a network.
Other layers are added to generate functionality (see The Rise of the IP Network and Its Vulnerabilities). The result is a network constructed on stacks of protocols, and those stacks are replicated throughout every node in the network. Each node passes traffic to the next node before the user reaches its destination, which could be 50 nodes away.
This M.O. is the legacy of IP networks. They are complex, have a steep learning curve, take a long time to deploy, are difficult to troubleshoot, lack resilience and are expensive. But there is an alternative.
A better way to build a network is based on a single protocol—an IEEE standard labeled 802.1aq, more commonly known as Shortest Path Bridging (SPB), which was designed to replace the Spanning Tree Protocol. SPB’s real value is its hyperflexibility when building, deploying and managing Ethernet networks. Existing networks do not have to be ripped out to accommodate this new protocol. SPB can be added as an overlay, providing all its inherent benefits in a cost-effective manner.
Some very interesting and powerful effects are associated with SPB. Because it uses what is known as a media-access-control-in-media-access-control (MAC-in-MAC) scheme to communicate, it naturally shields any IP addresses in the network from being sniffed or seen by hackers outside of the network. If the IP address cannot be seen, a hacker has no idea that the network is actually there. In this hypersegmentation implementation of 16 million different virtual network services, this makes it almost impossible to hack anything in a meaningful manner. Each network segment only knows which devices belong to it, and there is no way to cross over from one segment to another. For example, if a hacker could access an HVAC segment, he or she could not also access a credit card segment.
As virtual LANs (VLANs) allow for the design of a single network, SPB enables distributed, interconnected, high-performance enterprise networking infrastructure. Based on a proven routing protocol, SPB combines decades of experience with intermediate system to intermediate system (IS-IS) and Ethernet to deliver more power and scalability than any of its predecessors. Using the IEEE’s next-generation VLAN, called an individual service identification (I-SID), SPB supports 16 million unique services, compared with the VLAN limit of 4,000. Once SPB is provisioned at the edge, the network core automatically interconnects like I-SID endpoints to create an attached service that leverages all links and equal cost connections using an enhanced shortest path algorithm.
Making Ethernet networks easier to use, SPB preserves the plug-and-play nature that established Ethernet as the de facto protocol at Layer 2, just as IP dominates at Layer 3. And, because improving Ethernet enhances IP management, SPB enables more dynamic deployments that are easier to maintain than attempts that tap other technologies.
Implementing SPB obviates the need for the hop-by-hop implementation of legacy systems. If a user needs to communicate with a device at the network edge—perhaps in another state or country—that other device now is only one hop away from any other device in the network. Also, because an SPB system is an IS-IS or a MAC-in-MAC scheme, everything can be added instantly at the edge of the network.
This accomplishes two major points. First, adding devices at the edge allows almost anyone to add to the network, rather than turning to highly trained technicians alone. In most cases, a device can be scanned to the network via a bar code before its installation, and a profile authorizing that device to the network also can be set up in advance. Then, once the device has been installed, the network instantly recognizes it and allows it to communicate with other network devices. This implementation is tailor-made for IoT and BYOD environments.
Second, if a device is disconnected or unplugged from the network, its profile evaporates, and it cannot reconnect to the network without an administrator reauthorizing it. This way, the network cannot be compromised by unplugging a device and plugging in another for evil purposes.
SPB has emerged as an unhackable network. Over the past three years, U.S. multinational technology company Avaya has used it for quarterly hackathons, and no one has been able to penetrate the network in those 12 attempts. In this regard, it truly is a stealth network implementation. But it also is a network designed to thrive at the edge, where today’s most relevant data is being created and consumed, capable of scaling as data grows while protecting itself from harm. As billions of devices are added to the Internet, experts may want to rethink the underlying protocol and take a long, hard look at switching to SPB.
Mitch Robinson is senior business development manager, Avaya Government Solutions. Jennie Strobeck is director, government partner strategy and development, Avaya Government Solutions. David Volpone is sales engineering manager, Avaya Government Solutions.