Innovations in Micro Segmentation

Thoughts on Segmentation and SDN

The entire point of micro segmentation is to segregate individual network applications and provide them with separation from each other, and the rest of the network.

In the olden days, we had firewalls – ok we still have those – and many customers had outside/inside/DMZ – sadly there are still organizations who run Outside/Inside firewalls and are using outside IP to inside IP’s using NAT and think they have a firewall.

As things got better people started realizing we need to protect the inside of the network, from a box that might get attacked, so we put those in DMZ’s (It drives me nuts how DMZ is mis-used, it is really just poor education).

BYOD, Laptops, and users that do not know any better, result in nastiness being brought in to your network via the “Walk Net”, or users managing to download some kind of malware or virus – bottom line is that the biggest security threat on your network is probably on the inside.

There are many different security standards that are imposed on different industries, PCI for payment card,  NERC/CIP for electrical utilities,  NIST and a barrage of ISO standards.    These standards know something many do not – like I said, the biggest security threat is on the inside.

So we need to start protecting the network from itself.    Many clients started putting firewalls and IDS between users and servers, and that was difficult and expensive.   A router that routes line rate at layer 3, is significantly less costly than a firewall at the same performance.

What about protecting servers from servers?

SDN, Micro Segmentation, ACI, VXLAN, NSX, OpenFlow – all different terms, some vendor specific, but all talk about the same basic concept — Software Defining The Network.   Giving us better granular control of packet flows from device to device or object to object in our environment.

Micro-Segmentation – The Simple Explanation

There is a very easy concept to understanding Micro Segmentation.   Your network started as “Allow all Packets”  and now is “Deny all Packets”  — that is it, nothing more complicated

“Wait doesn’t that mean I need rules for EVERYTHING now?”  — Yes you do.

“That’s a lot of work!” — Yes it is, but once you do it once, you are good.

Why am I writing this?  Well there are some new ideas…   Read on.

I am no expert.

First, I am no expert on this topic – so I am writing simply what I have learned so far, and really this is an emerging market.     The other important point I want to make is – I am not writing about every possible option, there are tons of dev heavy SDN and/or micro segmentation options out there, and I am no developer.     OpenStack type concepts really scare me, and it scares a lot of professionals (many are afraid to admit it).

This is my opinion after years in telecommunications and information technology, feel free not to agree with me and sound off in the comments.

Do I need this?

I don’t know — do you?    Really, ask yourself.   I feel ACI/SDN/NSX/NVGRE – pick your term – is a solution for a problem not many clients actually face today.   In the service provider market this is a big deal for customer segregation and network automation and orchestration but I don’t think even large enterprises will run out and deploy these solutions any time soon.   Why spend $1 million on something that costs me $50K a year to do by hand.   On the other hand, if you are in a regulated environment, this might solve a lot of security problems for you, or perhaps you want a network that has the highest levels of security.   Either way some of these more mainstream solutions are big and expensive to deploy and will not be done quickly.

The use cases for SDN type technologies in my opinion are still evolving at this time.   I know one thing, the barrier to entry is cost, time and complexity.   Even if you wanted to deploy micro-segmentation to only a single app – it has traditionally been very expensive to do – until now.

The Need For a Gateway

Most if not all SDN or Micro Segmentation systems use some kind of encapsulation, VXLAN for VMware’s NSX and Cisco ACI,  NVGRE for Hyper-V.

The problem is – once we want to leave our virtualized / SDN / micro-segmented network – we need to talk standardized methods to client devices, routers and other devices that are not within the scope of our micro-segmented system.

Some solutions have the de-encapsulation features built right into the fabric (Cisco) and some like Illumio, well that is a totally different story because they do not use encapsulation.   For some like NSX and NVGRE  this means some kind of gateway – that gateway can be a single point of failure depending on your design.  Some of these gateways are hardware, and some are software.

Cisco ACI

Watching for some time, Cisco has realized one thing – SDN is a bit of a mess.   It is a little like me handing you a box full of mechanic tools and asking you to build a car with no automotive knowledge.

The solution from Cisco is ACI – Application Centric Infrastructure – which is a fancy name (in this writers opinion) for “Managed SDN” – you program business intent, and it tells the network how to achieve that.    The basis of Cisco’s new DNA architecture is the whole “program intent” instead of the traditional “program behavior”.  The idea is called contracts – or basically “I have a contract that says I can speak to you in a certain way” – no contract – no talkie.

ACI uses a segregated control plane inside a cluster of boxes called the APIC – The Application Policy Infrastructure Controller for the command and control of ACI – but it isn’t in the data path.   You can actually shut down the APIC and the network will still mostly function.

The Cisco ACI solution in my OPINION the best way to do it for big data centres that are greenfielding it – virtualize the network using network hardware – at the network – in silicon to ensure performance.    It also does not rely on any kind of gateway to talk to the rest of the non ACI world – that capability in inherent in the system, eliminating this nasty single point of failure.

The downfall is that your have to have all Nexus 9000 series switches to run Cisco ACI, and you must move to spine leaf architecture – and it is not exactly a plug and play solution.  Brownfield deployment of ACI is no small task, and can only reasonably be accomplished by installing ACI and then gouging massive security holes inside it to make applications work while you slowly lock it down (kinda the inverse of the point).   Not to mention the investment – is huge.    If you have multiple data centres – your problems just got even more complex.

VMWare NSX and Hyper-V NVGRE

These systems rely heavily on software based platforms to make them function, and while they do integrate directly with their hyper-visor platforms they rely on software (or some hardware vendors) to handle the movement of data between the virtualized network and the rest of the world.

The NSX World calls this an “NSX Edge”  in Hyper-V they call it a network virtualization gateway.    Either way if you lose this device – you are in trouble.

There are many management VM’s associated with both NSX and Hyper-V, losing some of them will cause massive network problems.

Not a big fan of this way of doing things – it brings a lot of complexity, so you better have some kind of offsetting benefit you are getting for all this hard work and in my opinion, risk.   Let the network handle the network.

Illumio – A Different Approach

At a recent Networking Field Day 12 event, we had a great talk from Illumio, and these guys are really thinking different.   Every single operating system has really good security capabilities baked right in, so instead of re-inventing the network wheel, why not orchestrate the tools what we have

The architecture is called the Adaptive Security Platform and is made up of two components.

VEN – Virtual Enforcement Node – software running on each host or virtual machine, it understands all communications on that host and is used to build the application dependency map.  It also completes tasks on the platform itself, tracks data about who is talking to who and enforces the policies on that specific host/VM.  This of this as your data plane.


PCE – Policy Compute Engine – An on premise or cloud box that takes all of the information from the individual nodes to create the relationship graphs, and then push down policies to the VEN from the PCE.    This is the control plane of illumio.

There are three things Illumio does…


Understanding the relationships between applications and hosts and other applications is something no IT department knows – ok that is a rash generalization – 99.999% of them.   Every time I get into a micro segmentation or even VLAN segregation discussion where firewalls are involved “Ok tell us all your flows so I can program the new firewall” — yeah right forget it.   Even Cisco’s ACI platform cannot really help you with that.     One of the great features of Illumio is the ability to see what is talking to what.   This feature alone could be used for many different applications – including helping you map out application dependencies or graphs for the deployment of traditional SDN or ACI solutions.    This will help you then build your policies for your network.

Illumio ASP(TM) Illumination Screenshot

They do this by generating a communications graph



Enforce policy on all devices by orchestrating the enforcement mechanisms already built into each operating system.    Build policy to match business intent.

“Segmentation in our vernacular is the enforcement of policy at the host, it is not a network construct”  says Matthew Glenn of Illumio

Install the PCE engine, and start building the policy based on your illumination data.    Once that policy is created the PCE will extrapolate the required rule sets for each host and start pushing it out.    You can diff your changes, and roll back quickly if you run into problems.

Tamper detection will alert you if someone tries to shut down the VEN or if someone tries to modify the ip tables or filtering component. The system operates in a double trust model, they have rules for traffic both in, AND out.   Even if a single application is attacked or the VEN is disabled – that only allows that box to get out – other boxes still wouldn’t allow traffic – and with shun features, it can even realize there is a problem with that host, and push out rules to block that box that was shunned.

Road mapped features include features to alert on rules that are not being used anymore, and help you keep your policies from getting bloated with old polices.

Deploying additional hosts of an application is simple, build the new host, and push out the pre-made policy for that application.   You can even test and monitor policies before deployment to make sure you do not cause any adverse problems.



Encrypt data between workloads easily using a single click.  You simply tell workloads you want to encrypt data between machines, and Illumio handles all the hard work of dealing with all the encryption and authentication issues.   I won’t spend a ton of time on this – it is a cool feature, but for me it is just a “nice to have”.  This basically eliminates the manual efforts of setting up these IPSec connections.

Illumio Extends Beyond the Physical Data Centre

The other use cases for Illumio are enormous    It can simply do things that normal SDN/ACI/NSX solutions can not do.

  • Secure services in branch locations
  • Protect devices across physical locations
  • Get a holistic view of apps and their security and relationship regardless of geography, and then create policies to protect them
  • Deploy into cloud services like Amazon AWS, Microsoft Azure or Long View OnDemand

Go Brownfield

This doesn’t involve changing any networking – in fact – this doesn’t even need the network team, an application or server team could deploy Illumio without even talking to the network department.   Obviously this is not something I would recommend, but this does mean you could use it for single application needs too.   Perhaps you have a single application or environment that needs heavy security but you do not want to move it to a new VLAN, or you need security between boxes across a WAN.   Perhaps you have a new application you are deploying and you want to micro segment it on the network – now – without having to go through the trouble of deploying micro-segmentation to the entire network.     New regulatory requirements require you to beef up security in a short amount of time with additional box to box encryption or policy support.

My Final Thoughts

These guys at Illumio are thinking different.  I really get the idea that everyone else in the SDN world seems to think people will just thrown down their infrastructures and rebuild in this new fancy SDN/ACI/NSX – whatever – world, like we all have time for that.    I know many organizations that may never have the time/energy/money to do that – but they all need security.    I like companies that think differently and push the edge, and this is something that if marketed to the right audience, and if Illumio can get their message to the right customers – may actually help to provide a wide range of customers with great security without tearing out everything they have.  Fan boy?  Yeah, I think so.    What about running this down to the desktop even?  They apparently have done that.    What is next for Illumio?   Not sure – but I would keep an eye on them.


3 thoughts on “Innovations in Micro Segmentation

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s