What is Network Agility?
Network agility is the speed and ease with which a network can adapt to topological and voluminal changes while still maintaining resilience, security and optimal performance.
Major factors in maximizing network agility today include the use of software-based structure, the flexibility to be dictated by user patterns, integration of AI, big data, and advanced automation.
The top-level components of network agility are network automation (via AI), deployment speed and ease (via touchless provisioning and centralized architecture), scalability (automation in conjunction with virtualization), network visibility (streamlined data flows), and information security (by defining formalized protocols of security and access).
Much of the hype around network agility has started very recently, and so you’ll find that the above components use the current industry buzzwords like AI and automation. While you may or may not need to keep stride with all the emerging concepts of networking, one thing is certain. And that is: networks and networking in general is going through a change.
Some contributors to this change are the integration of cloud computing, remote access, and the WFH culture. Therefore, you may find you will benefit from understanding network agility and how Zero trust (explained later in depth) can enhance it in terms of security.
Why Should You Improve Network Agility?
Towards the beginning of the pandemic, industries were not quite sure how to cope with all the remote collaboration and offsite access. Businesses rushed to adjust to remote work by shifting their applications and data to the cloud.
While companies were able to get by in terms of work continuity and productivity, the downside was observed in terms of network malfunctions and security breaches. This was an indicator that networks in general were not very agile, and making sudden, impactful changes to network administration involved considerable risk.
Even minor changes like opening a port through firewall so employees could get access from home turned out to be tricky. This is because security is not a given in home situations and such network configurations opened up businesses all over the world to tremendous risk.
Moreover, IT support teams networks were failing due to configuration changes they were making to accommodate remote collaboration.
Whether or not employees and businesses will continue operating from home or follow a hybrid model until Covid finally resides is another story. This was just an indicator that our network agility might not be as optimal as we were hoping, and that businesses certainly need to take steps to improve network agility.
What is Zero Trust?
Zero Trust is an emerging concept in security which takes a deny-all approach. You doubtless must’ve been held at the entrance of a society while visiting a friend or a relative. The guard takes down all your information, notes down your time of arrival, records your signature and then lets you in.
Well, imagine if societies stopped doing these thorough checks just for outsiders and started them for virtually everybody wanting to enter the society. This is what the Zero Trust concept looks like. It requires all users to be authenticated, authorized and continuously validated before being granted access.
The cabin at the society gate is like a small subnetwork which is some distance away from the society interiors. This is where ALL requests are scanned. Malicious requests are filtered out from the very beginning.
However, Zero Trust becomes exponentially useful by its principle of segregation. Let’s take another example of a business meeting. You probably have visited the offices of another business, likely for a meeting. Here too, you are validated at the entrance. However, once you are escorted inside, you are taken to a guest conference room where all discussions happen. If you need to access the internet (say, to get to a presentation) you are given the access to a guest WiFi.
The reason for this is not rudeness or the lack of hospitality. Basically, this is a real-world example of Zero Trust. By principle you are an outsider at the office and so you must be separated from the core business operations. No matter your intentions.
The same concept is abstracted in networking. It protects the network, all the machines attached to it, and the sensitive data that it houses by authenticating everybody who makes a network request. Once a request is validated, they are directed towards a subnetwork, away from the actual network. This ensures that even if a malicious request does get through, it does not impact the overall network.
How Can Zero Trust Improve Network Agility?
To improve network agility with Zero Trust, the IT department in your organizations need to implement Zero-trust Access (ZTA) and Zero-trust Network Access (ZTNA) to identify and classify all the users and devices that make network and application requests.
Once these entities are identified, stringent protocols kick in to check whether the nature of their requests comply with the access and security policies. Regardless of whether they pass or fail these scans, they are assigned zones that are topologically distant from the main network, and then they are put on a continuous monitoring mode.
ZTNA restricts unprivileged users from accessing the applications. Users are ‘let in’ only after they show they have the correct identity and safety protocols enabled on their devices. This proof of identity isn’t dependent on physical location. Users can be at their homes or at office premises, they will STILL go through this stringent checking and that too for every application session.
This is how your network remains secure even in the face of changing network requests. It can adapt to sudden increase in volume or diversity of physical location, because every network request is diligently processed no matter what.