Lippis Report 143: Cisco AnyConnect Is A New Mobile Security Model

nicklippis.jpgNo matter where you look today the structure of IT is fundamentally changing. Applications are increasingly being accessed from mobile devices along with traditional laptop, desktop and even kiosk machines. SaaS has taken off and is far more prevalent than most executives realize as they are acquired by line of business and divisional budgets, leaving many IT leaders blind-sided and out of control with their relevance coming into question. As a result corporate application portfolios are shifting in their mix under IT leaders from one of total control to partial control to none. In short, IT leaders are finding that the largest application growth in their corporation is coming from outside of their traditional perimeter and with no control knobs. In essence applications and networks are becoming borderless.

While borderless networks offer productivity improvements allowing work to follow individuals, IT leaders are concerned about its security implications, that being are corporate assets secure when applications are being accessed and used within and outside of corporate perimeter? Can IT leaders deliver the ease of use afforded by borderless networks securely? In this Lippis Report Research Note we review Cisco’s New AnyConnect approach to securing mobile devices, which promises invisible use along with safeguards, visibility, control and relevance for IT security leaders.

Cisco Launches AnyConnect Secure Mobility Solution

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With mobility comes productivity. As users work anywhere through a wide range of devices or end-points business productivity accelerates. This has been the case with every cycle of computing, from mainframes, minis, PCs, internet-connected PCs to now mobility; a correlated significant jump in productivity at a macro-economic level occurred and the mobile computing cycle will be no different. But to cease this productivity IT leaders need to be comfortable with mobile computing security. And they do have a lot to be concerned about as securing a plethora of different devices accessing both corporate and Web/SaaS applications from a vast array of locations and network access methods is a challenge.

Three major mobile computing themes stand out:

Theme one: Increase Productivity: IT business leaders need employees to be productive, so they provide access to information, making that access as seamless as possible so employees obtain the tools they need and information they require to do their jobs. A central component to this is providing consistency between out-of-office and in-office IT experience.

Theme two: Deliver Mobile Security: Many IT leaders feel this way: “I built all of this infrastructure to protect my users when they’re sitting within the organization. When they leave and are remote what is protecting them and corporate assets? I protect them eight hours a day, then they go home with their laptop and get infected for 16 hours.” In short a disproportionate amount of security investment has been made within the corporate perimeter that needs to be extended to remote and mobile access.

Theme three: End-point Agnostic: Consumerization of the enterprise is forcing IT business leaders to not only support traditional remote devices such as laptops, but also IPhones, Android, Blackberry, netbooks and other end-points that are on the horizon such as the iPad. Consumerization is focusing IT business leaders to deliver seamless network access with always-on security and protection across a broad array of devices to enable business productivity.

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Securing Mobile End-points With Existing Defense Techniques
From a security point of view, IT defense for mobile devices share many of the same concerns as securing fixed end-points. Unique to mobility is the security issue of lost mobile devices/end-points. To address this concern IT leaders typically need complementary product that can enforce PIN locks/encryption and support remote data wipe. Common to mobile and desktop security are concerns with acceptable use and threat protection. Malware plus web-based threats have spiked over the past 18 months, increasing threat awareness as business press coverage of exploits have expanded. IT leaders have data security on the top of their minds too. Therefore, access control, threat protection, data security, etc., are common security concerns to fixed and mobile computing with IT leaders and vendors seeking to expand/extend existing defenses to this new wave of computing.

Legacy VPNs Too Cumbersome: A New Generation of Remote Access Emerges
Clearly existing technologies such as Virtual Private Networks (VPN) is a remote access approach that seeks to provide a solution to mobile computing, but it falls short. The challenge with legacy VPNs is its cumbersome use model with multiple boxes to check, tokens and keys to exchange plus certificates to obtain. The process is not transparent and as a result is too painful to use resulting in legacy VPNs use only when absolutely necessary. This use difficulty is both a lost productivity opportunity and security vulnerability.

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The vast majority of time a user is outside the corporate network its end-point is unconnected to that network and thus largely unprotected and invisible to IT. Laptops in essence have no security except perhaps a desktop anti-virus (AV) client, which is becoming less and less effective over time due to signature-based defenses lagging exploit propagation. Connectivity may even be so rare that end-points spend much of their time out-of-compliance on patch levels. SaaS makes the problem even worse. Many use SaaS applications such as, et al., to conduct business-critical or business-relevant tasks by simply accessing these sites over the internet where IT doesn’t have visibility let alone control over these sessions. Most don’t use VPNs to access SaaS applications, which would route traffic through the corporate network, due to the use hassle.

With corporate applications having moved rapidly to both HTTP/Web/SaaS web security is an increasing threat breeding ground that requires a new defense model. There are web security solutions in the market such as Websense and BlueCoat, but their current models are limited to URL-filtering clients, which enforce approved URLs to each end-point. Further, their current operating system support for clients is limited to Windows XP omitting MAC OS X and smartphone mobile platforms. And while URL-filtering does provide limited acceptable use and malware security it does not address data loss, access control and thus full threat prevention, particularly given the nature and mechanism used by hackers to propagate threats today.

Enter Cisco AnyConnect Secure Mobility

To address mobile computing, Cisco has announced its Cisco AnyConnect Secure Mobility to combine access control and web security, which in essence creates a flexible perimeter around a corporation’s mobile end-points providing them the safeguards and security that desktop systems enjoy behind the corporate firewall. AnyConnect Secure Mobility combines Cisco’s AnyConnect client, Cisco’s ASA (VPN, Firewall, IPS, content switch appliance), IronPort (Web security), ScanSafe (Cloud Web Security), and SIO (Security Intelligence Operation) to deliver the next generation of remote access and security for mobile end-points.

While AnyConnect utilizes and integrates much of Cisco’s security technology, the real innovation is how the mobile client captures ease of use and simplicity, allowing users to access both corporate and Web/SaaS applications without the hassle of traditional VPNs for any type of end-point, be it laptop, smartphone, netbook, etc., while protecting corporate assets. In many cases the user experience will be far superior to existing remote access solutions as they don’t need to be concerned with network access type, be it VPN, internet, 3G, WLAN, 4G, etc. The hope is that AnyConnect will provide IT leaders with the assurances they need to enable employees to embrace mobile computing allowing their corporations to exploit its productivity advantages.

Making Remote Access Secure and Invisible

AnyConnect is a pervasive end-point controlling network access and security. The idea is that it fades away into the background, versus the very manual VPN configuration of today. AnyConnect decides where to connect and establishes the connection when the end-point needs to network. If a laptop or iPhone moves from WiFi to the 3G network, AnyConnect figures out what it needs to establish the connections. In addition, AnyConnect provides persistence, keeping all session state. The more intelligent AnyConnect gets over time the more it will fade into the background, being invisible to the user. Cisco is committing to a broad range of device support. Support for Windows XP, Vista, Windows 7, MAC OS X laptops has been made. Smartphones from Apple’s iPhone, Android and Windows Mobile are rapidly changing the enterprise mobility landscape which has been dominated by BlackBerry thus far and it seems logical that these end-points will be supported by Cisco at some point.

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Flexible Policy Creation

For web security clients AnyConnect delivers an innovation around policy so that specific policies for remote workers can be distinguished and reported differently than desktop policies. This is important from a compliance point of view as IT leaders often set policy for workers within the network perimeter around “acceptable use” and from a compliance and liability standpoint IT leaders need to be concerned with “where” users go on the web. However, when an employee is home on their own time using their laptop to browse the internet, IT Security leaders don’t care “as much” about which web sites they visit, only that they are secure and protected from propagating threats. Therefore, AnyConnect allows IT Security leaders to set flexible on- and off-premises policy. For example, in-office employees may have policy set for both acceptable use and malware prevention; however, off-premises employees may have policy set for malware prevention.
Device Collaboration Takes Complexity Away From Mobile End-point

AnyConnect promises to deliver an end-to-end user experience, thanks to the engineering that Cisco has done to enable the above mentioned security products to collaborate between each other. One example of this value is during AnyConnect user authentication via the ASA configured for remote access VPN headend. The ASA authentication information along with the fact that the user is mobile is passed to the web security appliance so that both can apply the right policy without delivering another prompt to the user; thus allowing mobile-specific policy to be applied to the remote access session. For the mobile user this process streamlines their access as he/she is not greeted with two different screens (ASA and Web security) during authentication, just one.

Hybrid Hosting: The Way We Work

Backhauling internet destined traffic from remote sites over the corporate network is unfortunately more often done for security reasons. As many security leaders are requiring remote or mobile users to pass through the corporate perimeter to access SaaS applications and other Web content, application performance may suffer. AnyConnect performs performance optimization between VPN and Web access scenarios to significantly lower latency improving user experience even during backhaul scenarios. But as internet video traffic has skyrocketed there’s increased pressure and demand to maintain high user experience by allowing these flows to bypass backhauling and go straight to internet, or “enforcement points” such as a ScanSafe cloud. AnyConnect promises to seamlessly find the closest network attach point and optimal enforcement point, whether that’s the backhaul path, a ScanSafe cloud or even a Cisco ISR G2 running in a branch office equipped with web security capabilities. It’s logical that Cisco will release these capabilities over time.

Securing mobile/remote users via cloud-based services and desktop users with on premise security appliances have emerged as an important security design approach. Security services delivered to mobile and desktop users via on premises and cloud solutions respectively are what some call “hybrid hosting”. Policy consistency is important to a successful hybrid hosting implementation. That is the ability to define user access policy on one policy server and propagate it to on-premises and cloud providers, providing common enforcement, single consolidated reporting and a better user experience.

Key to hybrid hosting is the mobile client. Cisco has built connection intelligence into the Cisco AnyConnect Secure Mobility Client. AnyConnect manages connections by finding a trusted network, meaning assessing if the connection is a secure enforcement point. If an end-point is currently connected to an unsecured public internet link, but the user application requires a secure connection, Secure Mobility Client will find it without operator intervention. Optimal gateway detection is another feature that automatically finds the fastest gateway for VPN access and connects to it.

Security For Thin Client End-points: Full Context Awareness

As end-point devices become thinner and thinner, meaning devices with less processing power and memory, the harder it is to enforce security on the end-point. Laptops can run sophisticated AV and scanning software to protect the end-point, but this software will not run on iPhones, BlackBerries, Android, etc., as they don’t possess adequate resources to run the code. Therefore as end-points become thinner and their numbers balloon while threats continue to be more sophisticated and web-based the question is how to protect these devices and corporate IT assets from them if they become infected? The answer is to leverage the processing power that resides within the network. With the network providing security services on behalf of thin client mobile end-points, a consistency across devices is gained that is independent of end-point type. Malware or exploits are identified along with web site destinations, policy can be enforced, reporting is captured and in the process IT Security leaders gain visibility.

For web security AnyConnect has integrated Cisco’s Web Security Appliance, which provides malware security, acceptable use, access control, and data security for web traffic. By performing this in the network rather than the end-point it’s possible to obtain powerful security capabilities such as multiple layers of malware defense and web application controls which are very difficult to deliver, especially across a breadth of end-points via an end-point solution.

Malware defense includes Web reputation, which is delivered by Cisco’s Security Intelligence Operation (SIO), and is effectively a risk rating for how likely a specific Web object is to be hosting malware. Additionally, multiple AV signature sets are run in parallel on suspicious traffic providing better coverage than any single engine. Currently Cisco offers Webroot and McAfee, and is planning to offer Sophos in the near future.

For acceptable use, Cisco offers standard URL filtering. But URL filtering has become less effective as the number of pages on the Web is exploding, making it impossible for URL lists to keep up. To address this, Cisco dynamically categorizes web sites in real-time. In addition, Web 2.0 sites and tunneling applications mean that a URL filter is not enough to protect users or create meaningful policy. Enter application control. What Cisco has done to expose web traffic is build an engine that understands web traffic and applications that traverse within it. That is to be able to identify if the traffic is IM, WebEX, Facebook, Facebook chat, an application running on Facebook such as Mafia Wars, Twitter, streaming media, etc. With all traffic being distinguished Web Security Appliance’s application control can “block” or “allow” the traffic but more importantly provide greater policy granularity.

Consider this. An IT leader can develop a policy that allows chat on IM, but it’s a data security violation if a user attempts to send a file via IM. Or a user can participate in a WebEx session but he/she can’t relinquish remote control of his/her desktop because it’s a security violation. A user may be allowed to go to Facebook and read, but not post as this may be a potential DLP risk. Cisco’s AnyConnect Web Security Appliance offers this deep application control thanks to its parsing of web traffic and subsequent policy granularity.
It’s difficult if not impossible to obtain this level of security and policy enforcement even on a traditional mobile end-point like a laptop. Imagine trying to make it possible for all of those smartphones that are flooding into the enterprise; virtually impossible. This is the value of Cisco’s network-based approach.

With SaaS Growth, IT Managers May Become Less Relevant

With the large number of mobile devices that access SaaS applications that are out of an IT leader’s control and visibility, IT leaders have become concerned with their own relevance. Most SaaS purchases are in fact not from IT departments but from business unit or line of business managers. Therefore, IT becomes less relevant as IT leaders don’t see this surge in SaaS application use, how to secure it and protect existing IT assets from potential threats. As SaaS use grows so does this challenge to IT.

To address this challenge, Cisco is building in SAML (Security Assertion Markup Language) assertion into the Cisco IronPort Web Security Appliance, in addition to authenticating web traffic as it egresses the enterprise. IronPort already works with AD (Active Directory) and LDAP to authenticate users. Therefore, Cisco is adding the capability to create a SAML token, which will offer a better user experience by delivering single sign-on into SalesForce, WebEx, Concur, Google Docs, and all SaaS applications that support SAML.

SaaS Access Control

What this does for IT leaders is provide control back as IT can demand that their SaaS providers support SAML token, meaning that users can’t access the SaaS application directly but through the corporate network. So if a user is at home he/she can’t go directly to and download a customer list onto his/her home PC or onto an unmanaged end-point. Users have to come back through the corporate infrastructure via AnyConnect to obtain their token. This provides IT leaders with both control and visibility independent upon where applications are hosted; be it in their data center or the cloud. With this link to all applications IT leaders can apply access control policy, data security policy and in the event of data loss or theft IT leaders now have granular forensic evidence too. With SAML token in IronPort, IT leaders have both control and great visibility that gives them the confidence to enable SaaS applications for workers and remain relevant. This is a huge point as many companies don’t know how many SaaS applications are being used. Cisco for example has over 350 SaaS application in use throughout their corporation, which is more than likely the rule rather than the exception.

One critical challenge SaaS presents is when employees leave or are terminated from their employer. How does IT remove access to these SaaS applications? It’s easy if there are only a few SaaS applications in use, but when the number of SaaS applications grows to the tens and hundreds the process becomes daunting and DLP vulnerabilities increase. With Cisco’s Web Application Controls IT can simply implement a zero day revocation; that is pull the terminated employee’s credential out of the AD and all access to every SaaS application is terminated.

What AnyConnect is offering IT leaders is the assurances and safeguards to say yes to employees to use the IT tools they desire, be it a laptop, iPhone, SaaS applications, Android, Blackberry, etc. For users, they get a simplified way to connect to applications independent upon where they are hosted along with the protections and safeguards once only available to them while in their offices behind the corporate perimeter. From a security leader perspective they get increased control and more security as AnyConnect extends out to that entire mobile workforce. Cisco’s AnyConnect promises to successfully thread the needle to avoid the typical tradeoffs that accompany security products such as security versus business process or security versus user experience. With AnyConnect IT leaders will be able to enable business mobility, increased user experience, and protect corporate assets through strong security services. In short the AnyConnect Secure Mobility Client offers a simple use model for mobile workers that leverages Cisco’s ASA, IronPort Web Security Appliance, SIO, and more then likely in the future ScanSafe, to wrap a corporate perimeter around its mobile workforce.

For existing Cisco customers that utilize ASA and WSA their implementation of AnyConnect is straightforward and the ability to absorb this innovation fast. These IT organizations would install AnyConnect Secure Mobility Client on end-points with required configuration changes to ASA and WSA. AnyConnect can be implemented piece meal too starting with AnyConnect Secure Mobility Client and ASA adding other security defenses when appropriate.

But to make AnyConnect a success Cisco needs to expand its smartphone support and prove that its AnyConnect Secure Mobility Client is indeed as simple and invisible as it claims. Also IT leaders will have to get comfortable with and trust the various enforcement points and its policy granularity. AnyConnect will have to work in conjunction with other security technology such as anti-malware engines, PIN locks and data encryption, plus remote data wipe to protect against lost devices. Look for Cisco to partner with others to deliver these aspects of mobile security. The key value proposition of AnyConnect is a simple yet powerful user experience. The success of AnyConnect rests upon Cisco’s ability to deliver on the promise of an exceptional user experience with an always-connected remote access and security architecture.

7 Debates over Lippis Report 143: Cisco AnyConnect Is A New Mobile Security Model

  1. Ned Twerks said:

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  2. Ned Twerks said:

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  3. Nick Lippis said:

    I dive into Cisco's AnyConnect Secure Mobility Solution announcement with an analytical mind.

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