Lately, as we are talking to customers and partners, we are increasingly hearing one particular message more and more often: Disappointment in the performance of IPSs ... budgets being reallocated from IPS deployment projects to NBAD projects. In this article, I would like to explore where the disappointment comes from, and how IPS deployments (and investments) can be rescued.
The wonderful world of IPS marketing
Unhappyness with IPSs. Where does this remarkable turn of events come from? After all, not too long ago, IPSs were heralded as the be-all and end-all of network security. The one-stop-shop for all that is required to keep an enterprise's data, hosts and networks safe and sound.
Even then, though, many security analysts already pointed out the accepted best-practices approach: There should always be multiple layers to any network security architecture. Do not rely on a single point solution. However, there is something inherently attractive about an IPS for any organization. and this message proofed to be more powerful than any warning: Here is one box, which can act as a firewall, but also as a much smarter filter on the data that needs to be let through. It may even scan e-mail for viruses. And it is all updated automatically, remotely, right? No problem then! If a new worm or virus should come around, there will be new signatures for it uploaded on the device in a hurry, and my network will be safe, right? One box to secure it all...
Too much hype
Ironically, this simple and effective marketing message now turns out to be the IPS's undoing. Even more ironically, the technology of the IPSs is fundamentally sound. These are good devices, which really work. The problem is that claims for their capabilities have been blown out of proportion. Therefore, customer expectations have been elevated to levels, which the technology cannot meet in the real world.
The prime example for this is the claim that IPSs can protect a network against zero day attacks or anomalies. But the simple fact is that a signature-based pattern matching mechanism, the core technology of an IPS, can never detect zero day exploits or anomalies. Even those IPSs which can detect RFC violations in protocols are essentially matching a signature (the description of the protocol in the RFC) against the observed traffic.
What's the problem?
If your network security relies on signatures then you have to ask yourself: Where do those signatures come from? In the case of IPSs, the signatures are generated by human beings in the IPS vendor's data center. Skilled security specialists are working there to examine any newly found type of malware or anomaly, and generate signatures suitable for their device. These are then uploaded to all the installations out there. But there are of course two significant shortcomings to this approach:
- The vendor's data center only sees those anomalies and traffic samples that are reported to it, or which they managed to collect themselves. If your enterprise is hit with a very specific attack or anomaly, then the vendor's data center does not see this traffic. Therefore, there will not be any signature for this anomaly forthcoming. The IPS in your network will remain blind to it.
- In the moment humans are involved, things take time. Typically, we can expect vendors to have signatures for new anomalies that they know about (!) available within a few hours or days. So, even under the best of circumstances, in case of a true zero day anomaly, the network will face hours without any protection at all.
So, what happened in many of those networks in which shiny, new IPSs were installed? Time and again, even those networks protected by IPSs were taken down or were affected by zero day outbreaks, anomalies or attacks. And obviously, any organization that bought into the marketing message of the IPSs, is disappointed (to say the least) when this happens after a significant investment into IPS solutions.
What IPSs are good at
I said earlier that I believe IPSs are in fact good devices, with good technology. You may wonder how I can say that in light of the disadvantages I just listed. Well, I also said that the problem was mostly with overblown customer expectations. I really do think that IPSs are very good at what they are designed to do: Look for patterns, even deep inside of packets or connections, match those against some known set of signatures, and perform some specified action based on that. This is all, no more no less. Many IPSs have become very good at this, and provide wonderfully fine-grained means to examine and filter traffic.
Clearly, though, this impressive ability does not help with any zero day anomaly, anything that is specific to the network in which the IPS is deployed, or anything the IPS does not know about in advance.
How to rescue the IPS investment
Many organizations that have invested heavily in IPSs are now wondering how they could better leverage this investment. Is there a way to effectively use IPSs even when faced with true zero day anomalies? Glad you asked, because as you can imagine, I think we have an answer...
As we have seen, IPSs are very good when they know what they are looking for. If they have accurate signature databases, then they will be able to find whatever matches those signatures. If it is not in there, however, then the IPS is effectively blind. So, the key obviously is to get the signatures for any zero day anomaly into the IPS as quickly as possible.
This cannot be achieved if we have to rely on some remote data center, in which humans work at human speed on a selective set of anomalies that they have been made aware of. We need something that can look at whatever anomaly or issue your network is facing right now. The anomaly must not only be detected, but also must be analyzed to the point where an accurate signature for this anomaly can be provided. Automatically, and rapidly.
The solution you are looking for is a packet-based network anomaly detection solution. In Esphion's netDeFlect, we do not only have the ability to detect anomalies such as DDoS attacks, worm outbreaks, misbehaving applications and other network impacting events in seconds, thanks to our specially trained neural networks. In addition, we also have zero day signature extraction modules. These analyze the anomalous traffic right there, in your network, and extract the characterizing signature for the anomaly. All of this takes place fully automatically, and within just seconds.
The network operator can then choose to have this signature translated into a variety of formats, router ACLs, IDS signatures but also IPS signatures. These are ready to be applied to the IPS, which then becomes an instantaneous mitigation device, even for zero day anomalies, that are entirely local to your network. For additional information about how this works, and how you can get a powerful, self-defending network security architecture out of this, please see my article here.
So, what do we get out of all of this? I think the message I would like to get across is this: IPSs are good devices, but even they need to be part of a multi-layer security architecture. This is best practice, and has held true in the past, and continues to hold true, even in the age of powerful, multi-function devices, such as IPSs. IPSs are good at what they are doing: Finding what they know about. But for zero day anomalies, an IPS can only be effective if it is supported by one of those additional layers in the security architecture: An intelligent anomaly detection system, which has the ability to extract fine-grained signatures even for zero day anomalies.
The capabilities of such an anomaly detection solution and of IPSs are the perfect match: Fine-grained signatures are derived out of the anomaly detection and analysis. And only IPSs have the fine-grained filtering capabilities to really take advantage of those signatures.
So, if you have already invested in IPSs, but would like to really leverage and protect this investment, by using those IPSs even during zero day anomalies, do consider the deployment of a network anomaly detection solution. That is how to get the most out of your IPS.