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Deciphering the secrets of network encryption

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Modern data centres are pools of shared resources and segmenting the data in them has become a requirement as much for regulatory as for security reasons. It is no longer enough simply to provide access and expect individual users to take care of security themselves.

Relying on file system permissions or even virtual provisioning is inadequate. The larger the datacentre, the more critical that end-to-end security, with a focus on encryption, becomes.

The benefits of encrypting mobile devices have repeatedly become painfully obvious.

Encrypting websites is now mainstream, though the system requires major revision. Less popular – but just as important in shared environments – are the back-end encryption systems available to large data centres.

Tower of Babel

Modern filers offer encryption. Network switches offer encryption. But making sure that all of the various widgets can talk to each other is where everything becomes a little sticky: past a certain point, manually managing encryption keys is simply not feasible.

Keeping track of your encryption keys is the job of an enterprise key management system (EKMS).

Enterprise players in many markets each have their own solution to this problem. The two most popular EKMS offerings available are from RSA and NetApp. To avoid key management sprawl, other encrypted devices must be capable of working with these systems.

Safe take-off

Key management interoperability is vital and standards are important for any large-scale encryption project to succeed. The Oasis Key Management Interoperability Protocol (KMIP) is one worthy initiative in this space, allowing servers, storage, switches and other devices created by different manufacturers to operate effectively in a unified environment.

Brocade is an example of a participating vendor, offering network encryption products designed to provide both encryption at rest (disk based), as well as in flight (network based).

NetApp is another involved vendor, offering storage filers as well as key management software. Assemble the various pieces, and you can achieve a robust encryption environment.

Locked out

Data on the filer is encrypted. Even if somebody walks away with the disks, they would have little chance of interpreting anything intelligible without access to the key management system and the appropriate permissions.

Data being written to tape can be encrypted. This is important as backup tapes are often overlooked as a potential security breach.

The transmission of data between the filer, the switch and the end HBA can all be encrypted. It is not inconceivable that attempts will be made to sniff information on the wire and the right algorithms can make decrypting this information without detection nearly impossible.

The existence of rainbow tables – as well as projects devoted to completing them – requires a constant march toward newer and more complex encryption algorithms.

You would be unlikely to sneak that much gear into somebody’s data centre without being noticed

Today, AES-256 should be considered the minimum security standard employed on any network. Though theoretically it is a vulnerable algorithm, the equipment required to attack AES-256 is still measured in acres.

You would be unlikely to sneak that much gear into somebody’s data centre, or park it outside, without being noticed. Nor is there any chance of being able to attack AES-256 remotely: the bandwidth requirements would be extraordinary.

Encryption and segmentation of data at the network level is an expected security element of modern large-scale networks. On its own, the security it provides is not enough. Yet neither do any other standard security precautions provide a complete solution.

Network encryption is one piece of the puzzle whose various pieces have to be tracked and managed throughout their lifetime. ®

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