The concept of a self-defending network is not new. In the early 2000s, leading network and security vendors such as IBM  and Cisco  used the term to describe a network-as-a-platform. A collection of network and security devices working together as one unit to defend against cyber-attacks by adapting continuously to stay one step ahead of cyber threats.
10 years ago, the technology and tools required to bring together multiple vendors to create a self-defending network was very limited. Moreover, the cost of building such as a system was prohibitive, and the market as a whole was not ready. Most security vendors had closed systems with no ability to integrate them with other third-party systems. Self-defending networking was more fiction than reality since organisations did not have a mature enough network and security ecosystem to implement it.
Things have changed. Today, the technology glue to bring different devices in a homogeneous framework is ripe, and the market is ready. The advances in data analytics, Robotic Process Automation (RPA), Machine Learning, Artificial Intelligence, and Application Programming Interfaces (APIs), means that all the ingredients necessary to create self-defending networks are in place.
In this article, I cover the fundamental components of self-defending networks, how enterprises can benefit, and how the iCyber-Shield Central Management Platform has turned the fiction on ten years ago into reality today.
Self-defending networks: why it matters
Enterprises worldwide are facing increasing challenges to protect their digital assets against the growing number of cyber-attacks. The global skills shortage in cybersecurity is not making it easier.  Cybercrime is growing rapidly worldwide. The global cost is estimated to reach $6 trillion annually by 2021 . Enterprises are continuously looking for ways to stay one step ahead of cybercriminals by ensuring that their network and security infrastructure can detect and act quickly against active cyber-attacks before any damage is done. Doing this in an efficient and cost-effective manner remains a challenging task for all organisations globally.
There is no lack of technology to defend against cyber-attacks. What is lacking is an integration layer that can ensure that people, processes, and technology are working better together in a synchronised manner to defeat even the most persistent and well-resourced attacker.
Of course, technology alone is not the solution to stop cyber-attacks. The glue between people, technology, and processes must be in place. A self-defending network can help achieve that. The key business objectives of a network-as-a-platform include: (1) ensuring that security practises and policies are aligned to business needs; (2) ensuring that the cost of security operations is manageable; (3) reducing complexity and simplifying the overall network and security infrastructure to maximise effectiveness; and (4) detecting and responding to cyber threats faster, ultimately improving the Mean Time To Detect (MTTD) and Mean Time To Respond (MTTD).
Self-defending networks: what is it?
As a whole, self-defending networks comprise technology, processes and people. From a technology point of view, the ability to manage, monitor, orchestrate, automate and respond to cyber-attacks faster and in a cost-effective manner is at the centre. All the components of a self-defending are brought together using a set of tools and automation processes that provide the glue to all the network and security layers.
An effective layered defence approach also referred to as defence-in-depth ensures that all the components are working as one. Devices providing anti-virus, proxy, firewalling, VPN, endpoint detection, IDS/IPS, vulnerability assessment, patch management, SIEM, policy compliance, routing and switching are fully integrated. All these components are combined and tightly integrated using a vendor agnostic approach to provide deep monitoring and management, orchestration and automated response in order to effectively defend against cyber-attacks.
In multi-vendor security infrastructures, the ability to integrate different technologies from different vendors is key. A best of breed approach adopted by many medium and large organisations means that a self-defending network must provide a communication layer between all the systems involved in highly secure and seamless manner. The ability to manage and integrate several vendors in order to automate and orchestrate processes is also key. Ultimately, a vendor agnostic approach is required to ensure that an organisation security investment is protected to meet current and future cyber threats. Depending on the needs of the organisation, over time, vendors and technologies can be swapped as needed, ensuring minimum disruption of the overall security infrastructure.
Self-defending networks: how it works
The core components of a self-defending network can be grouped into 5 key categories: central management, monitoring, automation, orchestration and response.
Central management and deep integration:
In order to enforce an organisation policy, central management is required to bring all the different components into a unified ecosystem. A single command and control view ensures that policies and processes can be managed from a single pane of glass. By using APIs and native plugins, devices that are part of the system can be controlled in a consistent manner. A central management engine enforces the organization’s security policy at a global level.
Monitoring is key in order to ensure visibility across the entire ecosystem. A SIEM solution is used as a central collecting engine for all raw logs and events collected from devices. That data is then sent to an engine for correlation and long-term storage. Using Big Data and security analytics, events correlation can be used to give the overall self-defending network more intelligence. Anomalies can be detected faster. Rules can be pushed to devices in order to respond to cyber-attacks real-time using known patterns, heuristics and machine learning models. The data collected overtime across the network provides greater threat intelligence. The more data the better. As the self-defending network matures, it can ‘learn’ faster overtime by self-tuning, reducing false positives, maximising its effectiveness, and helping reduce the organisation overall cost in security operations.
Automation and orchestration:
Automation refers to the use of playbooks and rules that provide an abstraction layer required to formulate response plans. Using various tools and technology such as RPA, automation is allowing processes to be systematised. Menial network tasks can be automated freeing valuable time for security teams so that they can focus on critical incidents. Rules are pushed in a consistent manner to devices enforcing a defence-in-depth approach whereby protection is implemented at several layers in order to defend more effectively against cyber-attacks.
Responding faster to attacks:
The end result of an effective self-defending network is the ability to respond faster than current systems can. By leveraging deep integration with devices that are part of the self-defending network, playbooks and rules are used to take specific actions. For example, a ransomware is detected at the endpoint device, not only is that threat neutralised at the end point, but the adjacent network switches can also quarantine the device by blocking the port until a successful remediation is applied. Many other rules can be created and applied at global level. With all these components working together in a coherent and consistent manner, security teams can reduce operational cost and complexity dramatically. The bottom line is that organisation can dramatically improve their Mean Time To Detect (MTTD) and Mean Time To Respond (MTTD).
Self-defending networks: business benefits
The benefits to organisations are tangible. Network and security automation means that security teams can free up valuable time by automating menial tasks so that they can focus on critical incidents. Playbooks can be created and re-used on demand throughout the enterprise, cutting down online enterprise applications delivery lead times and ensuring that online business applications are delivered in a fast and secure manner in the cloud or on-premise. Key business benefits can be summarised as:
1. A central management of network and security infrastructures that simplifies management of disjoint and different technologies.
2. Automation of menial tasks in order to free up time from security teams given the resourcing challenges facing many organisations worldwide.
3. Consistency in delivering services across the organisations since automation provides a way to re-uses rules and playbooks in a predictable and consistent manner.
4. Integration of network and security processes with overall organisations business workflows which brings security operations and development operations together.
5. Institutional memory within the self-defending network ecosystems means that knowledge transfer is consistent, and the intelligence acquired within the enterprise over time can be safeguarded given the global cybersecurity resourcing challenge.
iCyber-Shield Cyber Defence Platform
The iCyber-Shield is a vendor agnostic platform that allows enterprises to manage, monitor, automate, orchestrate and respond faster to cyber-attacks. The platform’s deep integration with leading network and security vendors allows it to integrate disjoint technologies into a single command and control interface. The solution can be deployed within an hour in the cloud or on-premise allowing businesses to leverage maximum benefit from existing network and security infrastructure.
Out of the box, the platform supports deep integration with leading network and security vendors such as F5 Networks, Cisco, Palo Alto, Juniper, Splunk, Qualys, Jira, Kemp, EdgeNexus, Cloudflare, Stella Blockchain, etc.
It is a modular platform that consists of a monitoring module for logging and events management, a management module that provides deep integration using APIs push and pull technology and a rulebook and automation engine that provides automated response to cyber-attacks. The platform’s cutting edge migration module allows enterprises to seamlessly migrate between vendors from a single pane of glass, saving security operations costs by more than 70%.
Multi-Vendor Central Management Dashboard
Monitoring & Security Analytics
Monitoring & Security Analytics — Top Attacks
Monitoring & Security Analytics — Top Violations
Monitoring & Security Analytics — Top Attacks Distribution
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About the Author
Marco Essomba is a Certified Application Delivery Networking and Cyber Security Expert with an industry leading reputation. He is the 2017 runner-up in the UK CyberSecurity Industry Personality of the Year award and founder of SOARX (iCyber-Security), a UK-based firm that enables organizations in banking, financial technology, healthcare, retail, and the insurance sector to safeguard their digital assets. You can follow Marco on Twitter and LinkedIn.