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Network Zoning – In the Zone

Traditional network security featured two or three zones, whether they were thought of in terms of zones or not may depend on the organization. Certainly everyone is failure with DMZ; however, modern approaches to network security don’t stop at the perimeter. This is where these new zones come in.

In the early days of network security, the consensus was: place a firewall at the external touch-points of your network with two or more network interfaces. If you ran any public services, locate them inside something called a DMZ or screened-network and restrict access to/from those devices for internal systems. 

This should sound familiar, welcome to Network Zoning. The post-modern era of network security takes this DMZ approach and marries it with the principle of trust/privacy, so that the internal network can be carved up into segments providing increased security, compartmentalization, and privacy for users, services, servers, customers, etc.

In the earlier posts I referenced the idea of grouping like-functions of an internal network by vlan and/or IP subnet. This segmenting, grouping, partitioning, or zoning works just like the DMZ approach of traditional network security with the exception that the rules for access will be different and the “firewall” is internal. Here comes the tricky part.

Implementing the segmentation part can get complicated. I recommend vlans and different IP Address ranges as a general architectural practice, but it is possible with modern technology to insert transparent firewalls (let firewalls be firewalls) to facilitate rapid firewalling of network segments without having to implement vlans and IP Addresses.

These zones form boundaries inside the network, if you implement traditional firewalls they represent layer 3 boundaries and if you implement transparent firewalls they represent layer 2 boundaries. The outside boundaries should be thought of as untrusted, DMZ-like boundaries should be untrusted or semi-trusted, and depending on the user community the internal boundaries may be trusted.

These boundaries isolate trusted, untrusted, and semi-trusted devices and services from one-another and form what is referred to as a trust boundary. Trust boundaries can then be used to form privacy boundaries, where decisions are made segment trust implied within these various segments.

Getting back to the zoning concept, one design might feature an external firewall or set of firewalls (if redundancy is preferred) that provide the first barrier between the Internet and Internal users. Assuming the organization provides DNS, Email, Web, or other publicly available services, this firewall will provide an external DMZ as well. This will create one untrusted zone and one semi-trusted zone that will interface with an internal firewall/router acting as a semi-trusted barrier (zone) where the actual trusted zone(s) live.

The firewalls in this diagram can be routers, switch routers, firewalls, or a combination. The key is selecting hardware/software that will support the particular environment and needs of the organization. Firewalls come in all flavors, colors, and sizes these days and many do more than just filtering of packets, including deep packet inspection, IDS/IPS, load balancing, malware scanning, and web content filtering. Most routers on the market today can provide packet filtering / inspection in addition to traditional routing functions with minimal performance implications.

This specific architecture addresses minimal internal and external security from a zoning perspective needed to produce a trust barrier where internal systems should be protected from external (untrusted) systems. If the Internal Servers segment is firewalled from the Corporate LAN segment in this diagram, then four (4) security zones will form a privacy boundary in addition to the trust boundary where servers are isolated from users and outsiders are isolated from insiders.

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