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Here's Why Agencies Shouldn't Give Up on Firewalls

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John Breeden II is an award-winning journalist and reviewer with over 20 years of experience covering technology and government. He is currently the CEO of the Tech Writers Bureau, a group that creates technological thought leadership content for organizations of all sizes. Twitter: @LabGuys

There has been a lot of talk lately about the death of the security perimeter for computer networks, which is an especially sensitive topic for the federal government that helped to create the concept. Everyone seems to think it’s now impossible within cybersecurity to draw a line and keep bad guys on one side and authorized users on the other. I’ve been fairly guilty of following this drumbeat myself, including with my Nextgov Emerging Tech column miniseries on alternative technologies, including automated event-driven networking and segmentation.

This week, however, I am emerging from a months-long study of that staple of perimeter security technology, the network firewall. Specifically, I was asked by Network World to test and review the emerging field of firewall management programs.

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I will admit I brought my prejudices against perimeter security to the project. I kind of felt like it was a little bit too low-tech compared to the bleeding-edge, emerging technology missions I normally take on. But I came away with a new respect for the humble firewall and was impressed with the type of protection they can now offer, especially when an intelligent manager program can add new layers of intelligence and automation.

Firewall manager programs were originally created many years ago. As the name probably infers, their main purpose was to simply manage firewalls. At best, they saved administrators some sneaker leather by providing a central location for entering all those command line changes to open and close ports.

Today, almost all those managers have been rechristened as security policy management programs. They still tackle the original problem of firewall sprawl, where a large network simply has too many firewalls for even a moderate-sized team of people to successfully manage without the devices starting to accidentally block authorized programs, valid users or even each other. But they concentrate more on allowing admins to define their preferred network security policies while the programs go and do all the heavy lifting of making configuration changes. They work regardless of how many firewalls, and from how many vendors, are deployed in a network.

The change might seem like a subtle one, freeing some poor admin from having to close a specific port manually on hundreds of firewalls, but it really does up the game for firewalls. The first thing most manager programs do is find potentially hundreds of shadowed firewall rules that exist across a network. Shadowed rules overlap multiple devices, all doing the same thing. They are sadly prolific as networks grow over time.

If you want to open a hole for a blocked program, doing so should be as easy as fixing one firewall. But if a shadowed rule exists, then the program is still going to get stopped by another device. Or a program might only work intermittently if it’s running into a blocking firewall whenever traffic passes through that part of a network, which can be extremely frustrating to diagnose and fix.

Eliminating the shadowed rules can create a clean version of network security throughout even the largest networks. And managers record everything they do, so no shadowed rules can ever creep back into a network once they are swept away.

Many of the programs I looked at even enabled users to take some responsibility for the authorized apps on their network as they related to network firewalls.

For example, in one test there was an app that was not working properly. Instead of bothering the IT staff, an authorized user could complain, as a user, directly to a security policy management program. Using plain English, the user could tell the program his or her app was not working properly. The program ran a trace on my test network and discovered a specific firewall was blocking the app from connecting to either a Washington, D.C., or a California-based time clock server, which was hurting functionality.

The rationale for the block in that case was because allowing the time server to send data back to the app opened a hole for FTP traffic. There was almost no chance it could be exploited, so the danger was listed as negligible, not that the firewall cared. Depending on the manager program’s settings, and considering the danger was so low, it could go ahead and authorize the app on its own, rewriting the firewall rule to allow it and only later notifying security teams of the change. Or it could forward its recommendation to the correct department for approval.

The policy managers help to eliminate one of the reasons firewalls and perimeter security are so ineffective because perimeters can quickly become too large to effectively manage and patrol, especially within the largest government agencies. One of the programs even worked with software firewalls sitting within the Amazon Web Cloud, plus all the points where physical networks ended and the cloud began, a particularly interesting feature for government agencies following a cloud-first policy.

Firewalls are everywhere, especially in government. Instead of abandoning the old fortifications, using a program like a security policy manager can rejuvenate them and help secure and revive some semblance of a perimeter. And from my testing, they work well with both aging hardware, giving it new functionality and intelligence, and the so-called next-generation network firewalls, which can now be coordinated across multiple nodes or even networks if needed.

Firewalls are never again going to be the complete solution to cybersecurity problems. That time has passed. But these new policy managers can breathe new life into the old standards, allowing firewalls to become a valuable part of the overall government cybersecurity strategy and putting the bad guys back on their side of the line.

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